Yesterday, I discussed Israel’s reasons for fearing that the current Arab revolutions could produce even worse regimes. But what if, against all odds, genuine Arab democracies do emerge? In the long run, that’s clearly good for Israel. But in the short run, all signs indicate that the first casualty of Arab democracy may well be Egypt’s peace with Israel — because so far, Egypt’s opposition has been unanimous in demanding that the treaty be either scrapped entirely or “renegotiated” out of existence.
As Jonathan noted, even Ayman Nour, who heads a liberal, secular, democratic party, is demanding the treaty’s renegotiation; that demand has been widely echoed. The veteran secular opposition group Kifaya has long demanded its abrogation, as has the Muslim Brotherhood, which reiterated this just last month. Presidential contender Mohammed ElBaradei effectively conditioned the treaty’s continuance on establishment of a Palestinian state — an impossible demand given that the Palestinians still refuse even to sit in the same room with Israeli negotiators. And so forth.
And while “renegotiating” the treaty may sound less threatening than scrapping it altogether, it isn’t. For the two items most Egyptians want to renegotiate are precisely those that made the treaty viable for Israel: one essential to its economic security, and one to its physical security.
Let’s start with the less important one: Egypt supplies almost all of Israel’s oil and natural gas, and this is highly unpopular. Israel’s own recently discovered reserves can eventually replace Egyptian natural gas. But for oil, Israel has no obvious alternative supplier: No other regional producer will sell to it, while buying through middlemen or distant suppliers like Russia is both more expensive and less reliable, with potentially severe economic consequences. Hence Israel never would have ceded Sinai’s oilfields without promise of a steady Egyptian supply.
But energy is minor compared to Egyptians’ other gripe with the treaty: the demilitarization of Sinai, on which Israel’s defense depends. From northern Sinai, Egyptian tanks could reach Tel Aviv or Jerusalem in a few hours — not nearly enough time for Israel to mobilize its reserves. And since Israel’s standing army is minuscule compared with Egypt’s, its entire defense strategy depends on mobilizing the reserves.
If Egyptian forces are allowed to mass in northern Sinai once again, Israel will be right back where it was pre-1967: facing military annihilation at any moment. Hence Israel would never have ceded Sinai without the demilitarization agreement.
Moreover, Egypt’s army is incomparably better equipped now, after three decades of massive American aid, than it was during the last Israeli-Egyptian war. And it still trains almost exclusively for war against Israel.
“Renegotiation” is thus a euphemism for gutting the treaty of everything that made it viable for Israel. As such, it’s worse than abrogation, since for that, Egypt would be blamed. But if Israel refused to amend the treaty, a world chronically unsympathetic to its security needs would blame it for failing to support Egypt’s fledgling democracy.
Still, would a democratic Egypt really declare war on Israel? Given how rampant anti-Israel sentiment is there, it’s hardly inconceivable. After all, a democratic government must satisfy its voters, yet it will be hard-pressed to produce growth and jobs quickly enough to do so. Playing the anti-Israel card may thus strike any government as the only solution.