The powers that be in Israel clamped a deafening silence on themselves when the Egyptian people rose up against Hosni Mubarak. There was precious little that Israel could do to sway events in one direction or the other, since this revolution did not have its origins in issues related to the foreign, strategic, or defense policies of Cairo. And so Jerusalem, for the most part, remained quiet.
The silence of Israeli officialdom left the stage to a long line of doomsday observers and experts who competed with each other in spelling out a frightening list of new threats that will now confront the Jewish State. The rise to power, or at least to influence, of the Muslim Brotherhood and the potential collapse of other states that make up the region’s “moderate axis” were just a few of the anxieties that Israel was said to be facing. Foreign observers and media personalities made constant use of the word “fear” to describe the mood in Jerusalem. Jerusalem’s silence, in turn, created an ominous backdrop that nurtured and multiplied these prophesies.
In truth, however, the world immediately surrounding Israel reacted to the Egyptian upheaval entirely differently. It is almost as if our neighborhood had greater respect for us than we did for ourselves. Less than a week after the demonstrations began, Syrian President Bashar Assad gave an interview to The Wall Street Journal in which he set forth his understanding of the consequences for his country. He acknowledged that internal changes in Syria must come but he did not intend to act precipitously. He said his anti-Americanism and his confrontation with Israel had left him in better shape with the grassroots of his nation. He explained that he would continue his ties with Iran because “you cannot overlook Iran whether you like it or not.”
But he also said something else that struck a rather different tone: Asked if the peace process with Israel was now dead, he replied, “No, it is not dead because you do not have any other option; if you talk about a ‘dead’ peace process, this means everybody should prepare for the next war.” Parallel to this pronouncement, a long line of Egyptian figures proclaimed their belief that the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, even if not to their original liking, is here to stay. This has now been confirmed by the Egyptian High Command that has recently taken over in Cairo.
Neither the Syrian president nor the Egyptians have made these clear statements out of love for Israel; they have spoken out because the avoidance of any new war and the preservation of existing international treaties with Israel are vital strategic interests of both Syria and Egypt. Israel, post-Mubarak, has been confirmed by its two key neighbors from south and north as a vital bloc in the region.
There is an additional factor that refutes the dire prophesies which have filled Israeli and international media. The two largest armies in the region—that of Israel and that of Egypt—are both equipped by the United States. This means Washington is in a pivotal position to prevent a bloody confrontation from happening. The clear desire to avoid war is thus an aim of all three parties. This can and should become a primary building block for the creation of a fruitful relationship with any new Egyptian leadership.
Israel, in short, is not in the precarious situation that so many pundits have described. What this suggests in practical terms is that Israel can approach the scene unfolding around it with a large measure of justified self-confidence, knowing that it continues to operate from a position of strength. Some are saying that the Israeli-Palestinian track must go on hold because of the events in Egypt. The opposite is true. While the ultimate solution is at present out of reach—indeed, now would be a good time to admit that it has never been within reach due to insurmountable blocks on both sides—it is also quite conceivable that a Palestinian state can be born in the year 2011, even before all the I’s are dotted and all the T’s crossed.
Israel can similarly operate from a position of strength in facing up to the challenge from Iran. The Iranian people and even its oppressive regime cannot survive the North Korean-type isolation that would certainly be imposed should they ever cross the plank of nuclearization. As Israel and others continue to pursue a clandestine war with Iran—a war both sides prefer to cover with a cloak of secrecy—Tehran will gradually realize that the price exacted for its intransigence will be more than it can really pay. Meanwhile, as the regime increasingly strives to cut off its population from sources of reliable information, Israel is well-positioned to provide open-source, credible information to millions in Iran. This is a long haul, requiring patience, devotion, and endurance—and it has a true chance of paying off. Israel is already doing much in this field. It can and should do more.
In the end, despite the warnings of pundits, this is not a time for Israel to act out of fear. By understanding its relatively strong position, Israel can go a long way toward simultaneously safeguarding its own interests in the new Middle East and serving as a responsible and powerful local anchor of sanity in this unstable neighborhood.
Efraim Halevy is head of the Center for Strategic and Policy Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He served as chief of the Mossad from 1998 to 2002, and is the author of Man in the Shadows: Inside the Middle East Crisis with a Man who Led the Mossad.