Negative consequences already evident in Sinai

Because the events in Egypt continue to fall into the category of "revolutionary situation", we know they will affect Israeli-Palestinian relations, but we do not yet know in what way. We can only speculate. This requires caution, but is nevertheless a useful exercise if we wish to prepare ourselves for possible events to come.

To begin on a positive note of hope, Egypt will remain the Arab world’s most populous and powerful country. If it succeeds in democratizing gradually and with moderation, it could in the long term play a dominant role in regional peace-making and in countering, alongside Israel, militant Islamist influence.

Yet for the moment we must address more likely, and largely negative, scenarios. First, and most obviously, Egypt in the near future will probably be very busy with its own internal affairs. If the last few years of rule under the aging and ailing Hosni Mubarak were characterized by the waning of Cairo’s regional influence, this state of affairs is now likely to be amplified, regardless of who rules the country. This means less Egyptian input into the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, into Fateh-Hamas reconciliation, and the like. Who, if anyone, will fill the gap is not at all clear.

As a corollary of this weakening of regional leadership, we are already witnessing a decline in Egypt’s security control over northern Sinai. Last weekend’s gas explosion and the Egyptian army’s request that Israel permit it to deploy additional troops in Sinai (a permission required under the two countries’ peace treaty) reflect the escalation, under the shadow of the unrest throughout the country, of ongoing hostility on the part of the Sinai Bedouin toward central authority. This could have important and negative ramifications for the amazingly porous Sinai-Gaza border, posing the specter of increased anti-Israel violence and lawlessness emanating both from the Strip and from Egyptian Sinai. We don’t normally think of Egypt as a country beset at times of weakness by regional and ethnic separatism, in the category of Sudan or Iraq. But Sinai–northern Sinai in particular–is populated by Bedouin and, in the Rafah area, Palestinians, who do not think of themselves as Egyptians.

Apropos Gaza and its Hamas rulers, to the extent Egypt’s Islamists succeed in establishing even a foothold in government in Cairo, Egypt’s relationship with Hamas could be upgraded. Hamas, after all, is an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. This, in turn, could affect the standing of the West Bank-based PLO, to say nothing of the overall regional balance of power. Any enhancement of political Islam in Egypt could affect Jordan as well, thereby further isolating the Palestinian secular leadership in Ramallah.

Obviously, in this respect, an absolute worst-case scenario for Egypt (from Israel’s standpoint), wherein an extremist government cancels the peace treaty, could plunge the region into a crisis situation that could divert everyone’s attention away from Israeli-Palestinian relations, the peace process and the occupation. That is not likely to happen. But even the current situation, and obviously one in which Egypt becomes less accommodating toward Israel at the strategic level, is generating serious strategic rethinking among Israelis.

Sadly, to the extent that trends in this rethinking process are already evident, no one in Israel seems to be changing his/her mind: Israel’s hawks are becoming more hawkish and its doves more dovish, particularly on the Palestinian issue. We already hear the advocates of a forward-looking peace process, including President Shimon Peres, advising that Israel would be far more capable of dealing with regional shockwaves if it could present the prospect of peace with its neighbors. In response, those who never really wanted a Palestinian state next door in the first place explain that events in Egypt require Israel to hold onto its territorial assets and avoid risk-taking, particularly given the instability of its neighbors. This camp, led by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, also seeks to explain to the United States and Europe that Israel is now, more than ever, their most stable and valuable friend in the region and that the events in Egypt illustrate that the region’s most fundamental problems have nothing to do with Israel’s existence and the Palestinian conflict.

It’s early to predict how these diverse currents of Israeli strategic thought will play in Washington and Brussels in the long term. While Netanyahu can right now congratulate himself that the West’s preoccupation with Egypt takes the peace process heat off Israel, he himself has a whole series of immediate weighty consequences to deal with as a result of events in Egypt. These begin, today, with fuel- and border-security. Where they end, no one knows. But it’s certain that, no matter what happens in Egypt, the Palestinian issue will not go away.