Israel Nervously Watches Egypt

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on The Brian Lehrer Show, Neil MacFarquhar, UN bureau chief for the New York Times, and Sheera Frenkel, special correspondent in Jerusalem for McClatchy Newspapers, talked about how the Israeli government is reacting both publicly and privately to the events unfolding in Egypt.

As events unfold in Egypt, Israel is paying close attention. As both a Middle East democracy and a country with reason to fear the dissolution of the peace treaty, the outcome of the uprising — no matter how it ends —  is likely to have immediate repercussions for Israel. 

Sheera Frenkel wrote a recent article referencing Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s request that the US support Mubarak at all costs. While that was the Israeli government’s position at the beginning of the week, she said, she now believes they have moved toward a more realistic approach and are keeping quiet regarding the protests on Egypt. Netanyahu told the Israeli parliament that Israel needs to respond to any outcome in Egypt by “reinforcing the might of the state of Israel” but Frenkel said she believes was more posturing than policy. 

Israel’s military is in a state of flux, huge shift happening in terms of the head of military intelligence. I think Netanyahu was seeking to reinforce the Israeli public’s sense of security and safety along the border… I think he was really just trying to reassure the public with that statement.

Despite Israel’s claim to being the only democracy in the Middle East, Frankel sees other forces playing a powerful role.

It was an aid to Netanyahu who told me that Israel would rather see an evil dictator in the Middle East than a leader that they couldn’t predict…I think that Israel often touts itself as the only democracy in the Middle East, but at the same time, it's important for Israel to be seen supporting other democracies, but more so to be seen as enforcing its own security interests in the region.

Neil MacFarquhar said the move by the Palestinian Authority to call for new local elections could be interpreted as a sign that the protest movements are casuing some unease.

I think everybody is unnerved by the protest movements because of the sudden idea that all these police states are suddenly going to have to confront people power. It makes them nervous because they don’t have solid credentials to fall back on, so they’re all trying to take whatever short-term measures they can that they think will diffuse some of this public anger.

MacFarquhar did not think that either the Palestinian Authority or the Gaza government under Hamas was particularly strengthened by the protests. 

I think that the Palestinian electorate, having had a choice in recent years, is probably a little less disenfranchised than the others around the region, but I don’t think that the Gaza public exactly loves the rule of Hamas, certainly not all of them, so I think both of them are probably nervous.

While the Palestinian Authority may cede some ground to Hamas in the coming elections, the future is still very uncertain and the outcome of the protests unpredictable. 

People are in a surly mood and they want to fix some of the problems that they have been confronted with for a couple generations.

MacFarquhar called it an interesting moment for the Muslim Brotherhood.

They have a lot to gain, obviously, if the Egyptian political process opens up. They’re a very conservative bunch, they don’t like to stick their head above the parapet before anybody else. The last time Egypt experienced anything close to open elections was 2005, when they won 88 seats in parliament, which was about a fifth. And they didn’t do much, they just kind of sat there and they didn’t agitate, so they’re always a bit of a cipher when it comes to what their political wants are.

However he said it would be a mistake to refer to the Muslim Brotherhood as a monolithic organization, because there are huge generational differences within it, based largely on differing experiences of recriminations by the different generations of members. 

In response to a caller’s concerns that the dissolution of the Mubarak government could lead to a dissolution of the peace treaty, MacFarquhar expressed skeptisism. 

The demonstrations so far have not been about Israel and the peace process. I think the military believes in the peace treaty, and as long as the military is in the driver’s seat, that peace treaty is going to be maintained… Israel’s strongest insurance policy for securing the region is forming peace with the Palestinians. If there is a strong Palestinian middle class that has a peace treaty and believes in it, then they are going to support it and it doesn’t matter what the Egyptians say or the Lebanese say or the Iranians say, the Palestinians are going to say we have a peace treaty and we like it. So [Israel] should try to negotiate an agreement while they have people to talk to.

MacFarquhar said while the White House probably has their hands full trying to figure out the future of the situation in Cairo, the situation in Egypt still might present a good opportunity for the administration to demand that Israelis and Palestinians negotiate with no preconditions.

It would seem that in a period of transition like this, when both the Israelis and the Palestinians are nervous about what’s coming next in Cairo, it might be a good time to sit down and do some real hard bargaining, instead of talking past each other like they so often do.

Frenkel disagreed.

It’s a nervous time for all the entire region for all of the current governments and given that Egypt is the cornerstone for Israel’s peace policy in the entire region, Israel’s probably the most nervous of them all, and I don’t think it’s going to something that’s going to be cleared up or resolved on the coming days. I think it’s going to be quite a long process.