Mubarak’s last friend

February 1, 2011 columnist Lance Selfa, editor of the book The Struggle for Palestine, looks at the little-talked-about relationship between Israel and Egypt.

ANYONE WHO has followed the career of Israel's right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu knows that he is rarely at a loss for words--but he's always ready to lecture "the Arabs" about what they ought to do to conform to Israel's standards.

So you almost had to do a double-take to make sure you were reading correctly when the major Israeli newspaper Haaretz led on January 31 with the following headline: "Netanyahu urges world to tone down Mubarak criticism amid Egypt unrest."

The hot-headed Netanyahu urging calm? This was yet another illustration of how the mass movements in Egypt, Tunisia and other states have thrown the status quo of the Middle East up in the air. While Egypt's dictator Hosni Mubarak faced rebellion from ordinary Egyptians and mounting calls for his resignation from the world's capitals, only a few diehards could be found in his corner, with Israel leading the way.

The January 31 Haaretz story explained that "the Foreign Ministry issued a directive to around a dozen key embassies in the United States, Canada, China, Russia and several European countries. The ambassadors were told to stress to their host countries the importance of Egypt's stability. In a special cable, they were told to get this word out as soon as possible."

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Pete Souza | White House)

After making efforts to stay quiet about the events in Egypt, Israeli officials were now raising their voices in defense of Mubarak's regime.

"The Americans and the Europeans are being pulled along by public opinion and aren't considering their genuine interests," a "senior Israeli official" told Haaretz. "Even if they are critical of Mubarak, they have to make their friends feel that they're not alone. Jordan and Saudi Arabia see the reactions in the West, how everyone is abandoning Mubarak, and this will have very serious implications."

ISRAEL'S BEHAVIOR in the midst of the crisis highlighted several of the dirty secrets of Israeli--and U.S.--foreign policy in the Middle East. While both countries prattle on about democracy in the region and hold up Israel as "the only democracy in the region," both of them support--and depend on--a string of dictatorships across the Arab world.

The U.S. maintains its "special relationship" with Israel because Israel is the most pro-Western and stable country in the region. Yet the U.S. realizes that it must also have support from some Arab regimes, the mass of whose populations resent the U.S. links to Israel.

Nothing embodies the U.S.'s search for stability more than the seemingly never-ending "peace process" which President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger initiated--and every American president since has continued.

The "peace process" has nothing to do with bringing peace and justice for the Palestinians. On the contrary, "The 'peace process' undertaken under U.S. auspices was always aiming to peripheralize the centrality of the Palestine question and to advance the bilateral dimension of the Arab-Israeli conflict," wrote political scientist Naseer Aruri.

In other words, the U.S. used the peace process to avoid dealing with the Palestinians and to entice Arab countries to cease hostilities with Israel. Because the peace process doesn't deal with the root cause of instability in the region--the Palestinians' dispossession--it can't bring peace to the region. It aims to persuade the Palestinians to accept a Bantustan in the West Bank and Gaza, giving Arab regimes cover to make "peace" with Israel.

The peace process produced one sought-after result when Egypt became the first Arab country to conclude a formal peace treaty with Israel in 1979. Then, President Jimmy Carter hosted the signing of the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel. Egypt, which had fought three major wars with Israel since Israel's founding, agreed to the peace six years after its defeat in the 1973 war.

The accords, signed by Israel's right-wing Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, stipulated a five-year transition to Palestinian autonomy in all of the occupied territories. The accords also ceded back to Egypt the Sinai Peninsula that Israel occupied in 1967. Israel finally ended its occupation of the Sinai in 1982.

The Camp David Accords didn't meet Palestinian demands, but they served Israeli, Egyptian and U.S. aims. For an investment of around $3 billion a year in aid to Egypt, the U.S. gained a new Arab ally. Egypt opened its doors to Western investment.

In completing the peace with Egypt, Israel neutralized its most powerful military rival in the region. This freed the Israeli army to concentrate on its main enemy: the Palestinians. Only three years later, Israel launched the invasion of Lebanon, which drove the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization out of that country. The "peace" at Camp David had set the stage for more war.

Since then, Israeli strategic and military doctrine has rested on the assumption that the cold peace with Egypt allows it to shift its aims from defending against an invasion to policing the occupied territories and training its sights on Iran, which it considers its biggest threat in the region. As the recent WikiLeaks revelations confirmed, Israel shares with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab dictatorships the desire to roll back Iran's influence in the region.

While paying lip service to the Palestinian cause, in reality, Egypt's government considers the Palestinians a nuisance to be managed as part of its role in the U.S./Israel-dominated regional setup. Today, Egypt collaborates with Israel's attempts to strangle Gaza, while acting as an interlocutor between Israel, the U.S and the Palestinians. For these reasons, Israeli security officials welcomed Mubarak's naming of Omar Suleiman as Egypt's vice president.

"If there is anyone who is more cooperative with Israel than Mubarak, it's Omar Suleiman," Joseph Alpher, a former senior official of Israel's chief spy service, Mossad, told AOL News. "He knows us, and he's worked with us for years. The best scenario for Israel is that Suleiman succeeds in restoring order."

While Suleiman's ascension may be Israel's best-case scenario, the Israeli press is beginning to give voice to alarmist commentary about what may happen if Mubarak falls.

Some commentators wonder about Israel's further isolation following Turkey's break with Israel over Israel's killing of Turkish citizens in its attack on the Gaza aid flotilla last year. Others speculate about the implications for Israel if an Islamist government emerges in Egypt. Still others are laying the groundwork for a "who lost Egypt" debate in the U.S. if the Obama administration proves no more successful at "preserving stability" in Egypt than the Carter administration proved at saving the Shah of Iran in 1979.

But a more immediate threat is the inspiration that the Egyptian events give to ordinary people living under other repressive regimes. As Amos Harel, writing in Haaretz, put it:

If in the end the Egyptian regime falls, one possibility that seemed incomprehensible just a few days ago, is that the uprising will spread to Jordan and threaten Hashemite rule.

Then Israel's two long, peaceful borders will face an entirely new reality. A new Middle East, but not the one we wished for.

The Palestinians, too, are likely to reach the conclusion that mass demonstrations, combined with a limited amount of popular violence, will advance their statehood bid without the need for an agreement that would include obligations to Israel.

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