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“With Our Eyes Wide Open”

What the Egyptian revolution means for Israel.

There are two ways to think about the impact upon Israel of the collapse, fast or slow, but inexorable, of the Mubarak regime in Egypt. The first is to be concerned for Israel. The second is to be concerned about Israel.

Until the peace treaty with Egypt was concluded in 1979, it was said about Israel, and rightly, that it was surrounded by “confrontation states.” The accord with Egypt, followed by the accord with Jordan, destroyed the monolithic character of the security threat to Israel. The collapse of the Soviet Union, which was the most formidable enemy of Israel in the world, further fractured the threat, most notably in the case of Syria, which found itself isolated in its bellicosity toward Israel and without a powerful patron. Palestinian terrorism, for all its atrocities, never endangered Israel’s existence, and anyway the Palestinian people have a moral and historical status as Israel’s adversary and interlocutor that could not be imputed to the confrontation states, which on the question of the Palestinians were always cynical. Israel’s wars with Hezbollah and Hamas were not wars of survival, which is not to say that they were lacking in justification, even if they were not always sterling examples of the ethically scrupulous use of military force. So as long as there was peace, hot or cold, with Egypt and with Jordan, and as long as Syria was inhibited by the new regional arrangements from direct military action against Israel, Israel’s security situation was better than dire.

The emergence of a feverishly anti-Semitic Iran as a regional power, and its support of violent Islamist groups along Israel’s northern and western borders, and above all its sedulous pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability, considerably darkened the security picture in recent years. But Iran is loathed also by the Arab states, and for this reason there has been a natural alliance of interests between Israel and those states, between the Jewish state and the Sunni states, which has provided a countervailing pressure against Iranian influence and ambition. The basis of this de facto coalition, of the “security architecture” of the region, was the peace between Israel and Egypt. And the basis of that peace, and of the resistance in the Arab world to the theocrats and the jihadists, was the regime of Hosni Mubarak. He was the secular tyrant who kept the peace.

Israel may be forgiven for the shudder it has experienced at the end of the Mubarak era in Egypt. While it is still premature to conclude that the next government in Cairo will abrogate the treaty of 1979, which has brought many tangible benefits to Egypt, it is a prospect that must now be entertained, and for Israel it is a very unpleasant prospect. It is virtually certain that the Muslim Brotherhood will be included in the next Egyptian government, though hopefully the Egyptian opposition, the Egyptian army, and the White House will be cunning enough to prevent it from becoming a Muslim Brotherhood government; and however much the Muslim Brotherhood has renounced its virulent origins, it certainly has not renounced them so clearly and so completely that Israel has nothing to fear from its rise to power. It is preposterous to suggest that Israel has no basis for alarm, or for its feeling that a fine period of strategic stability is drawing to a close. This is not the apocalypse, but it is profoundly rattling.

The collapse of the Mubarak regime cannot be attributed, obviously, to the failure of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Egypt has exploded for Egyptian reasons. The valiant people in Tahrir Square did not include Palestinian statehood among their demands. Their grievances were domestic, as Mubarak’s outrages have been domestic. Yet the Egyptian repudiation of Mubarak will have consequences for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and so the analysis of Israel’s new situation cannot be addressed solely in terms of vulnerability and vigilance. Here is where concern about Israel must be added to concern for Israel. For the Netanyahu-Barak government has displayed gross historical irresponsibility in recent years. It has, in its relations with the Palestinians, desired only stasis and the status quo. The Al Jazeera leaks and the Olmert memoirs have abundantly demonstrated that the Palestinian Authority has been capable of significant concessions in the pursuit of a deal. By all accounts the Palestinian security forces on the West Bank have worked assiduously, and effectively, to thwart terrorism and to cripple Hamas. But the momentous improvement of life on the West Bank—is this not what thoughtful Israelis have dreamed of for decades?—has not moved Netanyahu to any kind of creative diplomatic activity. Not at all. Instead of plans and initiatives, he offers platitudes and debaters’ points. He bewails the fate of Palestinian moderation even as he does his best to seal its fate. He warns about the weakness of moderate Arab governments even as he makes them look weak. He worries about the waning influence of the United States in the region even as he helps to damage the influence of the United States in the region. Obama was mad to transform the issue of the settlements into a deal-breaker, when Israeli-Palestinian negotiations had already found an approach to the problem; but Netanyahu was mad—but also clever and consistent—to agree to let the issue be so transformed. Are rec rooms in Ariel really worth all this? Ground was broken last week for a massive new Israeli development in East Jerusalem as Tahrir Square was filling up with the evidence of a new Egypt. Do the Israelis have the right to build there? Let us say they have the right. But this is not a question of rights. It is a question of brains. Why in Herzl’s name would Netanyahu wish to alienate the Palestinians in the West Bank now?

The answer, of course, is that he wishes to alienate them always. “Israel Digs in On Peace Process With Egypt in Turmoil,” The New York Times reported last week. But Netanyahu was dug in on the peace process also before Egypt was in turmoil. Whatever he says, his history shows that in his view the time is never right. “We have to look around us with our eyes wide open,” Netanyahu told the Knesset. “The basis for our stability, for our future, and for preserving the peace and widening it, lies in bolstering the might of the state of Israel.” But nobody ever suggested that in the name of peace he lessen the might of the state of Israel. The purpose of Israeli military power is not only military. It is also political. It can serve as the guarantor of diplomatic imagination and diplomatic progress. But there is no diplomatic imagination and there is no diplomatic progress. There is only a perverse surrender to the settlers, and a miasma of short-term (and self-interestedly political) thinking, and a general hunkering down. What Netanyahu has offered his country is a complacent immobilism, now followed by a mild panic. So with our eyes wide open, it is important to assert that Israel’s vision of its future cannot be premised upon an eternity of Arab authoritarianism and an eternity of Palestinian statelessness. Such a vision is wrong, and it will not work. It is painful, for someone who admires the Jewish state for its democratic character, to see it emerge as an enemy of democratization. Jews should not rely on Pharaohs.

Can both these concerns—for Israel and about Israel—be contained within a single perspective, within a single politics? In the present climate of American debate, almost certainly not. The right will press the former and the left will press the latter. Everybody will close one eye.

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.