Why Israel is worried about Egypt: Andre Aciman

Andre Aciman

Andre Aciman sets out clearly the precarious state of Israeli-Egyptian relations under ex-president Mubarak in the Wall St Journal. But like Richard Cohen, he mars his analysis with a call for Israel to strike an honorable peace now with the Palestinians, as if Palestinian antisemitism and rejectionism can be divorced from Arab and Muslim Jew-hatred in general (with thanks: Lily):

Whether Jews built the pyramids is debatable (most historians are skeptical). But there is no doubt that Jews in the 20th century helped conceive, build and finance many of the institutions, such as banks and hospitals, that ushered Egypt into the modern age. You wouldn’t know it, however, since Hosni Mubarak, like Gamal Abdul Nasser before him, made certain that all signs of the Jewish presence were expunged from Egypt’s memory.

Despite the 1978 Camp David Accords signed between Israel and Egypt, what Mr. Mubarak put in place after President Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981 was a frigid peace. Egypt did not go to war with Israel, but it spewed hostility across the border. For a price—namely American aid and the restitution of the Sinai peninsula—Egypt continued to sell natural gas to Israel, allowed Israeli ships to pass through the Suez Canal, and kept a semi-watchful eye on the southern tip of the Gaza Strip.

It allowed Israeli tourists to visit Egypt, but there were and are no cultural exchanges, no meaningful trade, nothing. Egyptians who dare to visit Israel are summarily blacklisted. Egyptians who wish to marry Israelis could have their Egyptian citizenship revoked.

Rather than seek ways to build friendship between both nations, Mr. Mubarak stoked the vilest forms of anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic propaganda. For 30 years, an entire press and entertainment machinery made sure to distort anything having to do with Jews and Israel. Stoking Jewish hatred would never earn him an enemy in the Arab world, but it might certainly appease, let alone win over, some of the more religious or refractory members of Egyptian society.

The problem facing Israel today is not only the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood—which, despite all its claims of pacifism, seems committed to rescinding the 1978 peace treaty. It is a persistent and systematic policy that galvanized fierce nationalism, religious fervor, and virulent Israel-bashing. Each of these three, when pushed to the hilt, is dangerous enough. Commingled, the three are explosive.

Under Nasser, Egyptian nationalism was built on little more than pan-Arab irredentism and anti-Western and anti-Israeli sentiment. Mr. Mubarak retained these powerful brainwashers and allowed the rise of a religious component to further alienate Egyptians from liberal and democratic thinking. That the call for democracy is so loud in Egypt these days is a testament to the brilliance, courage and promise of Egypt’s youth, who during the revolution were not distracted by the Israeli question. In the rousing words of one of them, they welcomed the day when Egypt finally woke up to dream again.

Understandably, however, Israel is worried. Will Egypt see that its real enemies since the deposition of King Farouk in 1952 have always been poverty, ignorance, repression, failing prospects for its youth, and a shameful record in human rights? Or will it slip back into fervent nationalism, religious zealotry, and anti-Semitism and in the process find itself saddled with an army man eager to re-energize his country by demonizing the usual Israeli suspect?

The opening of the Suez Canal to two Iranian warships does not bode well. Neither does radical Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s ability to draw over a million Egyptians to hear him preach in Tahrir Square. Nor does last week’s attack by the army on a Coptic monastery, or the brutal sexual assault on CBS News correspondent Lara Logan during the massive celebration of Mr. Mubarak’s ouster. As a crowd of 200 men attacked her, it was widely reported that they screamed “Jew, Jew, Jew.” (Ms. Logan is not Jewish.)
Israel is under no illusions, but it cannot afford to wait and see which way the wind blows as rebellion sweeps through the Middle East. Rather, it should seize the moment and show that it can bring about changes as momentous as those witnessed elsewhere in the region today.

That means striking an honorable deal with the Palestinians, vacating areas whose occupation is unjustifiable and allowing the Palestinians to have a country with a capital Israel learns to share. Israel must show its Arab neighbors that it can up the ante on their revolution and produce the long-awaited miracle of peace in the Middle East.

Israel and Egypt need to turn back the clock 33 years to that utopian moment when, for a period of three or so years, the doors between the countries were wide open—when friendship and trust was not quixotic business, and when good will more than good fences made for good neighbors.

Egypt wants to be young again. Israel must show it never grew old. Egypt wants to wake up and dream again. Israel must learn to dream though it cannot sleep.

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