The drastic changes in Egypt, and the unrest throughout the region, have left Israel with a new sense of strategic vulnerability. Though the Egyptian military says that Cairo will respect existing international treaties, alarm in Israel over the fate of the 1978 Camp David accords is evident.
Israel has not been in a rush to forge new peace agreements since its 1994 treaty with Jordan, believing the continuation of the status quo to be tolerable. Now, however, Cairo’s uncertain political direction has Israelis questioning their external security.
These feelings were evident at the prestigious Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya Conference in early February. IDC, established in 1994 as Israel’s first private university, has for the past 11years hosted this annual policy gathering, which brings together Israeli and international politicians, policymakers and analysts to discuss regional security challenges. The tone for this year’s event was set by Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Chairman Shaul Mofaz, who said that “the Egyptian affair reveals a grave mistake [by the United States in giving military aid to Arab regimes].”
On the future of the Middle East peace process, Mofaz added that Israel had been caught off guard by the wave of protests that shook the region in recent weeks. “Israel and the world were taken by surprise by the earthquake that began in Tunisia, Egypt and the rest,” he said.
As if to prove his point, a look at the preliminary conference schedule released weeks before showed a focus on Iran. After the Tunisian uprising, a regional panel was altered in January to discuss destabilization and reform in the Arab world. Then came Tahrir Square, and perceived threats to the Camp David 1978 peace accord — the cornerstone of Israel’s regional strategy — permeated the conference. In the end, almost every panel discussion touched on the subject of Egypt. Israelis are concerned that Cairo’s re-orientation will bring back the era before Camp David when a quarter of Israel’s gross national product went to the military (as opposed to 9percent today).
The implications of the largest of Israel’s neighbors returning to a status of belligerency, or even Turkish-style tacit support for resistance against Israel, would have an enormous effect on the Israeli economy. For example, as military costs rise, spending on social services might be cut, with potentially grave consequences. Former Israeli minister Yitzhak Herzog’s opening remarks at the conference angrily criticized a 20 percent poverty level in Israel (mostly among Arabs) that has not been sufficiently addressed. The overarching theme at Herzliya this year was hostility to Arab democracy, based on the assumption that it will lead to heightened dangers for Israel. “In the Arab world, there is no room for democracy,” Israeli Major General Amos Gilead told the conference, adding: “We prefer stability.” Israelis brag that their country is the only democracy in the Middle East and, as Matthew Duss wrote in The Nation, “from the reaction at Herzliya to Egypt’s freedom fever, it’s clear that quite a few influential Israelis would prefer to keep it that way.”
The problem is that “stability vs. democracy” is a false choice; in reality, democracy comes much closer to producing real stability. Supporting dictators may work for a time, but democracies can adapt better to changing times and the aspirations of the people. The US now rightly asserts that the regional status quo is unsustainable. However, Martin Kramer of Israel’s conservative Shalem Center (echoing other speakers) suggested to the conference that, “In Israel, we are for the status quo,” adding that “not only do we believe [it] is sustainable, we think it’s the job of the US to sustain it.” True, Israeli reliance on the status quo is only possible in the long-term with US assistance, but the terms of that support will change in light of the new regional reality. A reality which may be leveraged to make Israel soften its intransigence in regard to negotiations with the Palestinians.
Instead of denying the sea change, perhaps the next conference can consider how to strengthen Arab democracy so that Cairo and others can become true partners in a just, lasting and comprehensive peace.
RIAD AL-KHOURI is dean of the business school at the Lebanese French University in Erbil, and a senior economist at the William Davidson Institute in the University of Michigan