The future of the relationship between Israel and the heart of the Arab world hangs in the balance as Egypt’s revolution continues to unfold. The impact of precipitate regime change in Egypt on the Middle East’s long-term stability is far from clear. How the emerging government decides to manage its state of affairs with Israel will largely decide the outcome. A short-sighted decision by the future Egyptian leadership to severely debilitate its security cooperation with Israel will run counter to both Egyptian interests and regional stability – and inadvertently provide a window of opportunity for Egypt’s most threatening nemesis: Iran.
For years Egypt has served as Israel’s closest Arab ally, and the relationship between both countries has acted as a bulwark of stability in the region. In 1979 both countries signed the Camp David Accords – an agreement that normalized relations between their governments and aligned Egypt away from anti-Israel Arab regimes and towards the West.
Since then Israeli and Egyptian interests have converged, and both have worked closely to curb the regional influence of a common enemy: Iran. While the existential threat Iran poses to Israel is well documented, Egypt's security is also endangered by Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons program. Egyptian officials have feared for years that Iran’s nuclear ambitions would provoke a nuclear arms race across the Middle East, as well as continue to afford Iran the aggressive confidence to fuel Islamic extremism throughout the region. Over time, Egypt and Israel have cooperated to facilitate the peace process, isolate Hamas, and check Islamist terror networks – all of these measures aimed in no small part to thwart local Iranian exploits. Now that Egypt is undergoing its tumultuous revolution, the future of its role vis-à-vis Israel and the region remains uncertain.
A future Egyptian government that debilitates its relationship with Israel will upset regional stability while inadvertently empowering Iranian-backed proxies. The Mubarak regime cooperated closely with Israel to curb illicit Iranian weapons trafficking into Gaza that emboldened Hamas, the violent Palestinian group that grew out of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. This policy has been wildly unpopular amongst the Egyptian people because it is perceived as contributing to the Palestinian plight. However, if the subsequent Egyptian government acquiesces to its majority and curbs this security cooperation, it will only oblige Israel to further entrench its occupation of the Palestinian territories in order to stem unfettered Iranian influence. This in turn will remove Egypt and the region one degree further from a two-state solution that realizes the national aspirations of the Palestinian people, while opening channels for Iranian-backed Islamists such as Hamas to gain security leverage over Israel and moderate Palestinian forces. It is precisely this converging interest between Israel and Egypt to contain Iran that makes their security cooperation vital to regional stability, and why it is imperative that it continues unimpeded moving forward.
While Egypt’s military officials have stipulated that the country will continue to respect its obligations to Israel, the future of Egypt is largely opaque and is pending a national election later this year. The state of the Accords is shrouded in uncertainty, and is dependent on who will come to power this September. If the military continues to have the majority of clout in a democratically-elected government, then the Israeli-Egyptian relationship will likely go unscathed, largely because $1.3 billion in annual American military aid is contingent on Egypt's respect of the Accords. Conversely, if the Muslim Brotherhood fairs well in the election, its empowerment and inclusion in a power-sharing government will undoubtedly impede contemporary Israeli security cooperation against Islamist terrorist cells that the Brotherhood sympathizes with. Further comments by Egypt’s prominent national opposition leader Muhammed El-Baradei that “Israel has peace with Mubarak, [but] not with Egypt” and by Egyptian presidential candidate Ayman Nour that, “In practice, the Camp David Accord have come to an end” add another layer of complexity to the situation. No matter how one cuts it, the outcome of the state of affairs between Israel and Egypt remains unclear, with an infinite range of possibilities in the hands of Egypt’s future leaders.
Ultimately, Egypt is now faced with an array of complex decisions as it ushers in a new era in the Arab world’s most populous and geo-strategically important country. In the realm of foreign policy perhaps no decision will have a greater impact on regional stability than how Egypt chooses to proceed with Israel. Either it could maintain the status quo and continue to act as a fulcrum in the Middle East that represents the Western-Sunni alignment against Iran, or it can fall victim to a shortsighted abrogation of the relationship to placate its masses. Either way Iran will be watching – and will be the first to capitalize on myopic Egyptian decision-making if provided the window of opportunity to do so.
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