Commentary Magazine

Egypt Against Israel

The existence of Israel’s nuclear arsenal has never been acknowledged by the Israeli government, yet it is an open secret and, as such, has proved a most effective weapon. Not, however, in deterring conventional Arab attacks; this it has never done and was never intended to do. Israel did not contemplate the use of nuclear weapons when it was threatened with strangulation in 1967; nor did it consider the nuclear option in 1973, when it faced the very real possibility of military defeat. The purpose of its nuclear option is strictly to deter a nuclear or other nonconventional attack; in the case of conventional war, only the threat of total annihilation would make using nuclear weapons acceptable.

But if Israel’s nuclear capability has a highly limited military function, it has nevertheless proved politically useful lately—to, of all people, Israeli doves. In leftist circles, the nuclear arsenal is regularly invoked these days as a kind of fail-safe mechanism that will guarantee the country’s security when, as it is hoped, Israel withdraws from the territories it won in the Six-Day War of 1967.

The disarmingly simple rationale of the doves was recently summarized by Alouph Hareven, one of their more articulate spokesmen. A former military planner, Hareven is not given to utopian daydreams, and in particular he does not deny the possibility of a Syrian surprise attack if Israel should relinquish the Golan Heights. But in such an event, he wrote in a recent article, the Israeli government will only need to make a simple announcement:

You have violated the peace treaty, dear neighbors, severely endangering Israel and its security. If within six hours you do not withdraw your tanks beyond the border and behind the demilitarized zone, you will force us to consider hard decisions about Syrian population centers.

There is, of course, no chance that Israel would resort to the nuclear destruction of Syrian cities in response to a conventional military assault, if not for reasons of military doctrine then because doing so would almost certainly result in Israel’s own demise. The Arab states are already in possession of vast arsenals of chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction; within five years, Iran and Iraq will probably have nuclear weapons as well. To repeat: as long as the war is one in which Israel can prevail, even at the cost of a staggering number of casualties, it will not resort to nuclear force.

But the speciousness of Hareven’s argument is not the point. For those in Israel who wish to make the case for withdrawal, which is to say the case against holding geostrategic assets, the existence of a nuclear option has been, by far, the most effective tactic in winning over the proverbial man in the street. Like Hareven, many ordinary Israelis beguile themselves with the fantasy that if their country should be attacked by its Arab neighbors after having conceded the advantage of territory in exchange for “peace,” it will be justified—in the world’s eyes as well as in its own—in “wiping them out” by means of atomic weapons.



Such bizarre notions, which in effect reduce Israel’s defensive options to a nuclear Armageddon, have their function in Israel’s domestic debate. But they also form the background to a peculiar development in recent months between Israel and its largest Arab neighbor.

Ever since it signed a peace treaty with Israel in the late 1970’s, Egypt has maintained that comprehensive peace in the Middle East can only be achieved if Israel reverts to its “natural size”—the 1949 armistice lines which prevailed until the Six-Day War. It stands to reason, then, that Cairo, which was been almost completely silent on the nuclear issue for sixteen years, would be especially careful not to deprive the Israeli Left of its pet argument that the possession of nuclear weapons will make Israel safe no matter where the border might be.

Yet instead, and to the bafflement of many, Egypt last fall launched a fierce diplomatic campaign to pressure Israel into signing the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Had it acquiesced, Israel would have been required to pledge that it had no nuclear weapons and to open its (officially nonexistent) facilities to international inspection. In the course of this campaign, Egypt so maligned the Rabin government that, for the first time since the Egypt-Israel peace treaty was signed, the Israeli Foreign Ministry, hardly known as a hotbed of hawkish sentiment, felt compelled to prepare a position paper on ways to penalize Cairo.

To add to the confusion, the government of President Hosni Mubarak did not even bother to pretend that the purpose of its campaign was to make the Middle East free of nonconventional weapons. While savaging Israel for its refusal to allow inspections of its nuclear reactors, Cairo adamantly rejected proposals for an international inspection of its own considerable chemical- and biological-warfare capabilities. In the end, only persistent pressure by Washington, which was acutely aware of the damage being done to Israeli public opinion on the withdrawal front, caused Cairo to suspend, at least temporarily, its diplomatic assault.



But it is only on the surface that the sudden investment of energy, prestige, and influence in the NPT campaign can be viewed as a new departure for Egypt. In fact, it is wholly consistent with the country’s concept of peace with Israel—if not, indeed, with Egypt’s recent political direction altogether. That relations between the two nations are not quite as warm as, say, relations between Holland and Belgium, or the U.S. and Canada, is common knowledge. Few, however, realize how cold the “cold peace” has really been—and how cold it remains to this day, despite the removal of the Palestinian irritant with the September 1993 signing of the accord between Israel and the PLO.1

Some 40-odd agreements undertaken by Israel and Egypt under the terms of their peace treaty have not been implemented because of Egyptian intransigence. These range from trade, tourism, agricultural projects, transportation, and telecommunication to cultural relations, the exchange of youth delegations, and the cessation of anti-Israel propaganda. But that is hardly all. More than 40 Israelis have been murdered by terrorists and Egyptian soldiers on Egyptian soil, to total official indifference. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is still widely printed and distributed in Egypt, and Nazi-style propaganda against Israelis and Jews is rampant in the semi-official press. Polls in Egypt show that most members of the intelligentsia oppose peace with Israel, and the few Egyptian scientists and journalists who have dared to visit the country have been ostracized and boycotted by their professional guilds on their return. Israeli tourists and diplomats have been accused of importing every imaginable scourge, from hoof-and-mouth disease to AIDS. And Israel has been charged with perpetrating virtually every terrorist act which the rest of the world associates with Muslim extremists, from Pan Am 103 to the World Trade Center bombing.

In 1986, President Mubarak himself abetted the escape of the murderers of Leon Klinghoffer on the Achille Lauro by providing them with a plane. Three years ago, Egypt led the campaign in the United Nations against the repeal of the resolution equating Zionism with racism. Despite frequent visits to Egypt by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and a recent official visit by President Ezer Weizman (which was specifically conditioned on an Egyptian commitment to reciprocate), Mubarak has resisted pleas to set foot on Israeli soil, refusing even to go to Eilat for a quick meeting with Rabin. To entice him to Jerusalem, the Israeli Foreign Ministry dropped a visit to the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem from the proposed official itinerary, but still Mubarak said no.

Egypt’s campaign to disarm Israel of its nuclear option has not been the only hostile act since the Oslo agreement with the PLO. Mubarak has used his country’s considerable weight and influence in the Arab world to prevent the lifting of the economic boycott and the establishment of commercial and diplomatic relations with Israel. Although there has been some increase in trade relations since Oslo, the change seems impressive only because, in the preceding fourteen years, there was almost no activity whatsoever. From a total of $20 million in import-export business in 1991 (excluding the oil Israel buys from Egypt at premium prices), trade in 1994 amounted to $43 million—half the trade between Israel and Uruguay. But the Egyptian press still refuses to accept ads for Israeli enterprises, and Israel cannot bid on government-controlled projects, which constitute 80 percent of Egyptian business. The only real cooperation is in the agricultural sector where Egypt is sorely in need of help, and even that is minimal.

Perhaps most indicative of the state of relations was a much-ballyhooed conference on trade in the Middle East held last October in Casablanca. No fewer than eight Israeli cabinet ministers and scores of Jewish business moguls from the West attended this post-Oslo affair. For Israel’s Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, the conference was to signal the launching of the “new Middle East,” the beginning of a millennium of peace and plenty in which Israel would not only serve as an engine of economic progress for the whole area but would become a fully integrated member of the Arab League or even of a Middle East consortium modeled on the European Union.

Yet Egypt did not quite see things that way. A booklet prepared for the event by the government proposed an impressive list of national and international projects. Some of them were envisioned as passing through Israeli soil; but Israel itself was never once mentioned, nor did its name appear on any of the booklet’s maps. One participant who had been on the Israeli negotiating team with Egypt in the 1970’s was reported as saying, incredulously, “You come to a conference on political and economic regional cooperation, and you see how Egypt erases Israel from the map, as if the whole area is contiguous Arab land.”

The booklet, however, was nothing if not consistent with general Egyptian policy. No map printed in Egypt (or, for that matter, in Jordan, Syria, or any other of Israel’s Arab neighbors) mentions Israel. An Israeli flag may fly over the building of the Israel embassy in Cairo, but no schoolchild in Egypt ever sees “Israel” in his atlas.

In short, and despite the Rabin government’s acquiescence in virtually every Egyptian demand relating to the Palestinians, the mood between the two countries has only gotten worse. Even President Weizman, Israel’s leading Egyptophile, has been moved to exclaim, “There is an ill wind blowing from the Nile.”



Over the years, Egypt has not lacked excuses for its behavior. At first, it said, normalization would have to await Israel’s complete withdrawal from the Sinai. Then, the 1982 invasion of Lebanon prompted a four-year recall of the Egyptian ambassador and an almost total freeze on relations. And there was also a more general excuse: throughout the 1980’s, Egypt maintained that having been isolated and boycotted by its Arab brethren for making peace with Israel, it could not institute warm relations until it had “returned to the bosom of the Arab world.” Finally, there have been other, pettier pretexts as well: a dispute over Taba, a piece of land the size of two football fields near Eilat; a quarrel over permission for the Arab residents of Rafiah on the Egyptian side of the Gaza Strip to join their brethren in Gaza; and the intifada, which prompted Egypt to demand that Israel recognize the PLO before normalization could become a reality.

Yet all these excuses were just that: excuses. Things did not noticeably improve after Israel’s withdrawal from virtually all of Lebanon; and long after Egypt had recaptured its role as the leading Arab state—thanks largely to its treaty with Israel and the ensuing American aid which made it a regional power—the promised thaw failed to materialize. Now that Jerusalem has recognized the PLO and signed the Oslo agreement, a new condition has been manufactured: Israel must conclude its withdrawal to the 1967 lines and enter upon a peace treaty with Syria.

What is behind the Egyptian refusal not only to implement solemnly undertaken commitments but, as in the case of the booklet distributed at Casablanca, even to acknowledge Israel’s existence? When queried, Egyptian officials and intellectuals reply that it is all the expression of a genuine fear. First, they say, Israel tried to conquer us militarily. Now, it is trying to subjugate us economically and displace us from our leading position in the Arab world.

Typical of this line is a recent article by Fawaz A. Gerges in Foreign Affairs, “Egyptian-Israeli Relations Turn Sour.” Israel, Gerges writes, “hopes to construct a new regional order that is Middle Eastern instead of Arab, in which Israel would be the dominant economic power.” At the Casablanca conference, he continues, statements by Foreign Minister Peres

poured fuel on simmering Egyptian fears. Israeli actions and words confirmed Egyptian suspicions that Israel aims to dominate the area—at the expense of Egypt’s regional role. To an Egyptian leadership already beleaguered by a rising tide of Islamic extremism, the marginalization of Egypt in the Arab arena would do intolerable harm to the internal stability of the regime.

Nor is “fear” of Israel restricted to the economic realm. As the Israeli military expert Gerald Steinberg has pointed out, Egypt today faces no external threats—yet despite that, and despite its dire economic condition, “it has a very large army and keeps two-thirds of its forces just outside the Sinai demilitarized zone.” Egyptian war doctrine, however improbably, still views Israel as the country’s main if not its only enemy. Thus, a “round table” of Egyptian military opinion, published in the pro-government weekly Ruz el-Yusuf on January 23, includes the following Orwellian statement in its introduction:

Peace today is threatened by those who signed it. The threats of war come from Rabin and the Israelis. If there is no choice but to defend the peace by war, then so be it. We will explore, together, the possibility of having war for peace.

No less alarmist, and alarming, are the sentiments expressed in the “round table” by Egypt’s former Minister of War: “I expect war with a certainty, because the agreements which have been signed and are being signed today lead to war.” Or those expressed in the same place by the current Minister of War: “It’s important to use the phase of peace to prepare for emergencies. . . . The Egyptian army is devoted now to developing its military capabilities and follows new weapons systems with great interest.” Or those expressed by a former Egyptian chief of staff: “The combined weaponry of the Arab states today exceeds that of Israel. If all these weapons were directed against Israel, the Arab states could defeat Israel.”

When the Egyptian military establishment talks openly of the weapons available to it, of course it is referring only to conventional arms, and of course it regularly and strenuously inveighs against Israel’s nuclear capacity. But when it comes to weapons of mass destruction, Egypt itself has much to answer for. It was, after all, the first Arab country not only to develop chemical weapons but to use them (in the 1960’s, during its war in Yemen). While concerting its plans with Syria prior to the Yom Kippur War of 1973, Egypt transferred chemical weapons wholesale to Damascus. Since then, in part by cooperating with Iraq, it has enlarged its arsenal and made it more sophisticated, focusing on nerve agents and chemical warheads to be placed on surface-to-surface missiles (SSMs). All this, we are to believe, out of “fear” of Israel.



To say that Egypt’s behavior is not what Israel expected when it signed the peace treaty sixteen years ago would be the understatement of the decade. When even a super-dove like President Weizman can allow himself to complain in public, it is no wonder that others have begun to ask whether anything Israel does will change Egyptian attitudes. An eloquent example of the frustration of the “peace camp” could be found in an article that appeared last February in Ha’aretz, after a failed meeting between Peres and Mubarak over the nuclear issue. The article, written by the veteran columnist Uzi Benziman, was pessimistic in the extreme:

The disappointing outcome of the Peres-Mubarak meeting raises the question whether this was just a failure to settle the disagreement on how best to denuclearize the Middle East or a much deeper phenomenon: the Arab world’s rejection of Israel’s efforts to integrate in the region. . . .

Here is an alternative interpretation of Egyptian behavior: Mubarak, like all the other Arab rulers, accepts Israel only as a necessary evil. Neither he nor they have reconciled themselves, emotionally or intellectually, to the existence of a Jewish state in the Arab region. . . .

Benziman is not alone. It seems to be dawning on even the most optimistic Israelis that two monumental factors militate against their dream of regional integration. The first (addressed by Benziman) is that there is no such thing as “normalization” between a democracy and a police state. The kind of relationship envisioned in Peres’s “New Middle East,” the kind which would allow the establishment of an Arab-Israeli Benelux on the Mediterranean, can only exist among democracies. True, Egypt is not a totalitarian, backward tyranny like Hafez al-Assad’s Syria, but its leader is “elected” without rivals and rules without constraints. Even Egypt’s relatively unfettered press has lately been slapped with regulations imposing mandatory jail sentences on journalists who “besmirch” government officials or publish “untruths” or anything the government considers “inflammatory.”

Under the pressure of militant Islamic fundamentalism, Egypt is also becoming less tolerant of minorities like its population of Christian Copts, who number between seven and twelve million, who trace their ancestry to ancient Egypt, and who represent no threat whatsoever to the regime. According to sources in the West, government mistreatment of Copts includes forced conversions, harassment, discrimination in education and in public-sector hiring, and the refusal of permits to repair or build churches.

This points to the second factor which separates Israel from the Arab world, above and beyond the unbridgeable gap between democracies and dictatorships: the increasing power and popularity of Islam in the region. Instead of becoming progressively secular and Westernized, as most observers predicted would be the case, Arab and Muslim countries are becoming increasingly traditional and fundamentalist. This development has little to do with poverty and deprivation; nor does it seem to have any intrinsic connection with exposure to Western ideas and mores. Until the overthrow of the Shah, Iran was not only one of the richest Muslim countries but the most “modern.” Algeria, too, is relatively well-off, with a large middle class exposed to Western culture. And now extreme Islamic forces are enjoying a spectacular growth in two countries closely allied to the West, Turkey and Egypt.

To be sure, this growth is resisted by the government, and that resistance leads to acts like the June attempt on Mubarak’s life, followed by the inevitable crackdown, followed by the no less inevitable reaction to the crackdown. But along with government resistance comes, again inevitably, government accommodation. Where Israel is concerned, the process of Islamization has reinforced the conviction among even moderate Arabs and Muslims that the Jewish state is what the extremists say it is: a foreign body in the Middle East, an alien growth which must be excised. Mubarak himself referred to Israel in a recent interview in the German weekly Der Spiegel as “a knife plunged into the heart of the nations of this region.” Clearly, he was suggesting that it is a knife which should be removed.

This does not mean that a war is imminent. For all their awesome military power, unprecedented in its sophistication and size, the relevant Arab regimes do not seem to be adventure-prone, and it is difficult (though not impossible) to imagine Mubarak joining Assad in a war against Israel in the foreseeable future. But the Middle East still has its crazies for whom Western criteria of reasonable risk do not exist, and who can start a conflagration others may not be able to contain. How thin is the margin between a manageable state of affairs in the Middle East and chaos? As the attempted assassination of Mubarak in June brought home, it is the thickness of one well-aimed bullet.

And even if the extremist forces are quelled, harmony is hardly likely to prevail. Western ideas of democracy and the peaceful settlement of differences are a long way from penetrating the Arabic and Muslim world. Until they do, even the most moderate regimes will dream of Israel’s disappearance, and consider peace treaties with the Jewish state temporary and tactical agreements to be broken at will. Egypt is no exception.


1 For the story up till then, see “The Real Lessons of Camp David,” by Rael Jean Isaac, COMMENTARY, December 1993.

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