Israel/Palestine: The Politics of a Two-State Solution

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Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Egypt, Israel and the Peace Process: Three Scenarios

In the past week there have been a number of articles in the American press on how a change in regime in Egypt would affect the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty and the overall peace process. Because of the darkness of recent Jewish history, many Israeli and American Jews are quick to imagine the worst possible implications.  In this post I will examine three possible scenarios for the peace treaty and then comment on how they will affect Israel's defense and foreign policies.

I see three possible scenarios coming out of the unrest in Egypt as regards the peace with Egypt: the status quo lite; the frozen peace; and the no peace/cold war scenario. The status quo lite is the scenario that would likely prevail if there is no change in the military regime other than its figurehead--Mubarak. In this case the cold peace with Israel would continue under which there are limitations on Egyptian military deployments in the Sinai, there are full diplomatic relations between the two states, and Israeli tourists are free to visit Egypt but in practice very few ordinary Egyptians visit Israel. The main adjustment is that the regime would refrain from holding joint summits with Israeli leaders at Sharm al-Sheikh or in Washington. There would be no more photo ops. Egyptian diplomats in Tel Aviv would continue to supply Cairo with political and military intelligence on Israel and make critical comments about Israeli policies to the Israeli and foreign press.

This scenario would be designed primarily to protect the military regime's relationship with Washington and the $1.4 billion annually in military and food aid. This aid has been seen by Washington, Cairo and Jerusalem as an American bribe for Egypt to continue to honor the provisions of the 1979 peace treaty. It has worked--although both Presidents Sadat and Mubarak withdrew Egyptian ambassadors from Tel Aviv to show anger at Israeli policies when Israel bombed the Osirak reactor in Iraq in 1981 and invaded Lebanon in 1982.

The second scenario is the frozen peace. Under it Cairo withdraws permanently its diplomats from Tel Aviv and ends all "normalization" with Israel but avoids renouncing the peace treaty or its military terms. This is the most likely scenario if there is a change of regime with a new civilian government taking power and the military returning to the barracks. This scenario is designed to distinguish the policy of the new government from that of the military regime, to put Washington and Jerusalem on notice that the relationship has changed, but to avoid a war or even a serious crisis with Israel and to possibly preserve some of the annual American aid to Egypt.

Egypt hasn't fought Israel since 1973 when under very favorable circumstances Egypt pulled out a tie and avoided a serious loss due to superpower diplomatic intervention. Egypt last fought a foreign enemy, Libya, in 1977, and since then has been responsible only for protecting the regime from the people. While Egypt's military is now equipped with modern American weapons like Abrams heavy tanks, M-60 tanks, and F-16 fighter bombers rather than the inferior Soviet weapons that it used in four wars with Israel (in 1956, 1967, 1968-70, 1973), its army and air force are still inferior to the IDF in terms of both combat experience and training. It would risk losing these modern weapons, the toys of the generals, with little prospect of having them replaced by the United States or any European country. Washington would not replace arms and risk another war and Egypt lacks the disposal hard currency to purchase weapons from any European countries including Russia.

The third scenario would have Egypt renouncing the 1979 peace treaty but not being provocative in its military deployments. This is likely to come to fruition only in the Muslim Brotherhood gains control of the new regime. And even then, it is not likely to come about immediately but rather gradually. More likely the first move would be the second scenario, frozen peace, with Egypt then waiting for a reaction from Israel. Egypt could then move to the no peace/cold war stance during a crisis between Israel and one of its other neighbors--the Palestinians, Lebanon, or Syria. Hamas or Hezbollah might even be eager to provoke such a crisis in order to trigger this response. Hezbollah could do so under urging from either Tehran or Damascus or both and Hamas might be willing to do so under pressure from Tehran if the conditions were right. Or Jerusalem, under the present government or another one on the Right, could trigger such a reaction by intemperate rhetoric. Foreign Minister Avigdor Leiberman aided Ankara in its reorientation away from Israel with his clumsy rhetoric and as an opposition figure he spoke of bombing the Aswan dam. If a new regime comes to power in Cairo, Bibi Netanyahu might very well risk provoking a coalition crisis in order to avoid such a scenario by replacing Leiberman with a safer figure.

Thus, as can be seen there are several steps between cold peace and cold war let alone hot war. 

How will a new regime in Cairo affect the peace process with Israel's neighbors? In reality, it is likely to have very little effect. As the recent Al Jazeera leaks demonstrated, Israel and the Palestinians are presently incapable of making peace even with a more centrist coalition led by Kadima and Labor. Because of the fallout from the leaks the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah has denounced the positions portrayed in the leaks and denied that it ever offered them. Until the split between Gaza and the West Bank/Hamas and Fatah is resolved there will be no peace agreement with Israel.

A change in regime will make Jerusalem less likely to engage in serious peace negotiations with Damascus. But such negotiations were not likely in any case because Netanyahu and Obama wanted Damascus to end its close relationship and military alliance with Iran as the price of peace. A Syrian-Israeli peace agreement would be part of a wider package deal with Washington making payoffs in terms of normalizing its relationship with Damascus and granting military and economic aid. The price for this would be the end of the Damascus-Tehran-Gaza axis. Bashar al-Assad has made clear that he is unwilling to pay such a price. And it is not clear that the present coalition under Netanyahu would be willing to pay the price of giving up the Golan. So we are left with no real change there.

The real change will be in Israel's internal politics. Israel could face a situation in which it is faced with hostile regimes along its southern, eastern and northern borders with only Jordan as a friendly neighbor. Egypt under a civilian government, Gaza under Hamas, Lebanon under or heavily influenced by Hezbollah and Damascus under the House of Assad all add up to a siege state for Israel. Israel would be almost back to where it was before 1979. Almost, because it would still have the peace treaty with Jordan (but it had under the table friendly relations with Amman before 1994). This is likely to intensify the rightward shift in Israeli politics since October 2000.

Israeli politics are very sensitive to regional developments. In this respect Israel is similar to the white minority regime in South Africa from 1975 to 1994. South African white politics were influenced heavily by the collapse of South Africa's white buffer to the north in the form of the Portuguese colonies in Angola and Mozambique in 1974-75, the Smith government in Rhodesia in 1979-80, and finally Namibian independence in 1990. These changes led to a polarization in white politics with many Afrikaners moving to the right to support the Conservative Party in the 1980s and many English-speakers abandoning the me-too United Party in favor of the anti-apartheid Progressive Federal Party. Unlike Pretoria, Jerusalem has a friend in Washington and is much more powerful militarily. So expect the present trend in Israeli politics to intensify. 


  1. A very smart and thoughtful analysis, Tom, and I like the three scenarios outline you've provided, all of which make a lot of sense. I too wonder if this will drive the politics of Israel to the protectionist right. Did you see that Jordan just got a new cabinet? Hard to tell what that means in terms of relations with Israel.

  2. Deb,
    Jordan's relations with Israel are a function of Jordan's national interest and hence will not change depending on the cabinet. As with France, foreign policy is the perogative of the executive.

  3. Very interesting post, Tom, that really delves into how the situation in Egypt will affect Israel. Did you see the column Thomas Friedman wrote today about this as well ( It'll be interesting to see how this all plays out in the long run...

  4. Tom, great post, your knowledge about the situation is really impressive. I know that the protests in Egypt were largely coordinated by Facebook and other social networks. It's incredible to see how far the arm of these new forms of media have reached.

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