President Morsi of Egypt scares Israelis. His election, and the rapid consolidation of power in the hands of his Muslim Brotherhood, culminates a year and a half of revolution. While public attention remains focused on the Iranian nuclear threat, the rise of this Egyptian Muslim Brothers regime is widely seen as opening another threatening front.
But there is another possibility. Whatever the extremist ideology of the Egyptian president, he must now produce results for his people. In the collision between ideology and the challenges of governance lies the potential for stabilizing the peace with Israel.
Many underestimated Morsi, seeing him as just an uncharismatic leader of the Muslim Brothers. He ran for president almost by default when the party’s leading aspirant was disqualified and other leaders decided to run independently. Some observers here were surprised when he acted decisively after terrorists killed 16 Egyptian soldiers before attempting an attack on Israel. But at the same time, his unilateral movement of some armor into Sinai raised questions about his commitment to the peace accord.
To be fair, Egypt says it remains committed to all its international agreements. The Egyptians have been careful to keep open lines of communication with the Israeli military, although the relations on the diplomatic level remain problematic. It is in the space between operational work between the armies and higher level communications where things get foggy. News reports indicate that the new Egyptian defense minister, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, initiated a phone call with his Israeli counterpart, Ehud Barak. Those reports go on to say, somewhat cryptically, that el-Sissi spoke at length with President Morsi. Oddly, anonymous Israeli sources deny the call even took place, citing the delicacy of Egypt-Israel relations. This may be the formula the Egyptians seek. Morsi will not “dirty his hands” with contact with Israel, leaving it to his defense minister to communicate about issues presented to the public as technical military matters. An optimistic — and possible accurate — way to look at this is as an indication that both sides are aware of the importance of a quiet, constructive approach.
To be sure, great obstacles impede cooperation between Muslim Brotherhood-led Egypt and Israel. In ideological terms, there is no way to square the circle, since the Muslim Brothers are enemies of Israel and the Israelis know it. The Israelis also know the appalling roots of Muslim Brotherhood ideology in European fascist thought. One should not make light of how distasteful Israelis find it to work with them. Indeed, reading the bigoted ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood in regard to Jews, minorities, women, Israel, etc., one cannot help but take a very wary approach to the new Egyptian government. Parenthetically, in discussion with AJC, Israeli commentators guffawed openly at a recent op-ed in a major American newspaper suggesting that we should be concerned with the Salafi, but not the Muslim Brothers.
However the Israel-Egypt relationship has never been based on affection. It survives because the stark realities of this difficult region generate interest on both sides in maintaining a cold, unenthusiastic, but stable peace. For Israel, the terror attack showed that our security requires a peaceful border and Egyptian success in defeating terrorism in Sinai. And for Egypt, despite the enormous changes over the last year and a half, the geographic, demographic and economic challenges remain, and that is why President Morsi is in deep trouble. His country is bankrupt, unstable, overpopulated and very close to starvation. Failure to address these challenges will undo his considerable electoral achievements, plunging Egypt into chaos. To focus on preventing Egypt from becoming a failed state, Morsi must have peace on his border with Israel whatever his personal aversion.
What could be the diplomatic next steps? The Egyptians seek modifications to the military annex to the peace accord. Here is where the conundrum comes alive. Israelis intuitively do not want Sinai further militarized, fearing it might undermine the strategic value to both countries of a buffer. However, agreeing to some changes may open a new opportunity: Morsi’s hostility coupled with Egypt’s fragility might enable him to offer the Israelis something the old regime could not. In a local version of the “Nixon to China syndrome,” it is precisely a Muslim Brothers government that has the power to legitimize, or at least normalize the peace accord for the Egyptian public. In this sense, a Muslim Brotherhood government signing an amendment to the military addendum could effectively ratify the whole peace treaty in the public eye. Until there is progress on the Palestinian issue, this is probably the best Israel can hope to get in its relations with Egypt.
In short, Israel and Egypt can provide each other with a peaceful border, necessary to address each side’s existential challenges. But will they have the wisdom to act accordingly?