In what may well be one more ominous sign of the impending collapse of the 1979 peace treaty, Egypt announced that it was abrogating a 2005 deal to ship natural gas to Israel. Coming as it does in the midst of an Egyptian presidential election in which the Muslim Brotherhood’s remaining candidate in the race is the favorite and with virtually all sides in the country’s political system expressing hostility to Israel, it’s hard to take the stated reason for the decision — a payment dispute — at face value.
But while some in Israel are taking a dark view of the situation, one person who might be expected to see things in the harshest possible terms is sounding an optimistic note. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a man regarded by most foreign observers as an extreme reactionary as well as a bull in a china shop, downplayed the Egyptian decision and said it was just a business dispute that could be resolved. This reaction tell us a lot about how badly the chattering classes have underestimated Lieberman as well as perhaps providing some basis for optimism that despite the grim political situation in Egypt, there is some hope that the peace with Israel can be salvaged. Lieberman clearly understands that the pipeline deal is the nexus of two unpopular yet unrelated issues: peace and the corruption of the Mubarak regime.
The pipeline, which has been repeatedly sabotaged by terrorists, is a symbol of the close economic relations that were developed between Israel and Egypt. But the gas deal also cannot be properly understood outside of the context of the kleptocracy that operated under the aegis of the former dictator. Egyptians have good reason to believe that Mubarak’s cronies were skimming the profits of the commerce and that the state was cheated. Lieberman may well believe it is in Israel’s interest to try to renegotiate so as to disassociate itself from the old regime.
The equanimity with which Israeli leaders regard the gas shutoff — which provided 40 percent of its natural gas and approximately a third of its overall fuel supply — is also testimony to their confidence in projects that are aimed at bolstering the Jewish state’s energy independence. With its own plans to exploit natural gas fields as well as shale oil deposits, some believe Israel will be able to eventually shed its dependence on foreign supplies.
But whether or not that optimistic scenario will play out any time soon, Lieberman deserves credit for not flying off the handle and for demonstrating a nuanced view of the problem. While Americans disdained him as a foreign policy nonentity and an obstacle to diplomacy, Lieberman has actually demonstrated some real skill during his three-year tenure at the ministry. His handling of the so-called “diplomatic tsunami” that was supposed to hit Israel because of the Palestinians’ independence initiative at the United Nations was masterful. Where possible, he has strengthened unilateral relations with a wide variety of nations as well as speaking up strongly on Israel’s behalf when challenged. Though he is still operating under a cloud of corruption investigations rather than his service at the Foreign Ministry exposing him as an incompetent as his detractors hoped, it has served to burnish his reputation as a smart operator.
That said, confidence in the ability or the willingness of the Egyptian government that will emerge from the coming elections to sign a new gas deal with Israel seems misplaced. Though Israeli leaders are right to say nothing right now that could exacerbate the situation, there is little reason to believe that the deterioration in what was already an ice-cold peace will reverse itself. Egypt’s new Islamist government may well stop short of formally breaking the peace treaty with Israel because of the consequences that would generate in terms of the billions they get in U.S. aid, but there is no question the hostility in Cairo toward Israel is going to get much worse.