To the many reasons why the current Israeli-Palestinian “peace talks” are a nonstarter, we can now add another: the situation in Egypt. The problem isn’t just that the chaos on Israel’s previously stable southern border decreases its willingness to take “risks for peace” that could replicate this situation in the West Bank. It’s also what the situation says about the Obama administration’s judgment.
As the Hudson Institute’s Samuel Tadros reminds us, when the Egyptian revolution broke out two years ago, the administration sought guidance in historical precedents:
According to the New York Times, President Obama asked his staff to study transitions in more than 50 countries around the world in order to understand and predict where Egypt and other countries in the Middle East might be heading. After extensive study, his staffers predicted “that Egypt is analogous to South Korea, the Philippines and Chile.” Months later, the administration was still confident in its assessment. While aware of the obstacles that were on the way during the desired transition to democracy, Benjamin Rhodes, a deputy national security advisor was adamant that, “The trajectory of change is in the right direction.”
Needless to say, Egypt turned out nothing like South Korea, the Philippines, or Chile. The Muslim Brotherhood took power, only to prove both so incompetent and so anti-democratic that a year later, the military ousted it by popular demand (anti-Brotherhood demonstrations drew an incredible 14 million people into the streets). The Brotherhood didn’t go quietly, and now there’s a risk that this week’s carnage in Cairo will spark a civil war.
None of this was unpredictable. Indeed, from the very beginning, Israeli officials warned unanimously that nothing good would come of Egypt’s revolution, and most Israeli commentators (myself included) agreed–for which we were roundly condemned by members of America’s foreign-policy establishment. Nor is it really surprising that Israel’s assessments proved more accurate than America’s: What happens in Israel’s immediate neighborhood has far more impact on Israelis’ lives than it does on Americans, and therefore Israelis invest more time and effort in trying to understand it.
Yet now the same people who got Egypt so badly wrong are demanding that Israelis trust them to referee an Israeli-Palestinian deal. The administration even sent a senior general, former U.S. commander in Afghanistan John Allen, “to define Israel’s security requirements” for it–and woe betide Israel if it begs to differ. But actually, President Barack Obama didn’t bother waiting for Allen’s conclusions; he asserted two years ago that the border must be “based on the 1967 lines,” and that this is perfectly compatible with Israel’s security needs. Never mind that no Israeli map of defensible borders has ever agreed.
In other words, the administration has already made clear that it won’t support Israel’s security demands; it expects Israel to bow to its judgment. But the people who thought Egypt’s revolution was going to resemble Chile or South Korea aren’t people whose judgment Israel can possibly rely on to assure its vital security needs. Under this situation, reaching a deal that satisfies Israel’s minimum security needs would be impossible even if all the other issues were somehow magically resolved.
But in fact, Secretary of State John Kerry has made it clear he wants to deal with borders and security first. And that means the blow-up won’t be long in coming.