Published: July 3, 2012
Is the election of Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, as president of Egypt the beginning of the end of the Camp David peace treaty between Israel and Egypt? It doesn’t have to be. In fact, it could actually be the beginning of a real peace between the Israeli and the Egyptian peoples, instead of what we’ve had: a cold, formal peace between Israel and a single Egyptian pharaoh. But, for that to be the case, both sides will have to change some deeply ingrained behaviors, and fast.
First, let’s dispense with some nonsense. There is a mantra you hear from Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in Israel and various right-wing analysts: “We told you so.” It’s the idea that somehow President Obama could have intervened to “save” President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and he was just too naïve to do so, and the inevitable result is that the Muslim Brotherhood has taken power. Sorry, naïveté is thinking that because it was so convenient for Israel to have peace with one dictator, Mubarak, rather than 80 million Egyptians, that this dictator — or some other general — would and could stay at the helm in Egypt forever. Talk about naïve.
I truly appreciate the anxiety Israelis feel at seeing their neighborhood imploding. But it is also striking that a people for whom the Exodus story of liberation is so central — and who for so long argued that peace will happen only when the Arabs become democratic — failed to believe that the liberation narrative might one day resonate with the people of Egypt and now proclaim that the problem with the Arabs is that they are becoming democratic. This has roots.
“In their relations with power, Jews in exile have always preferred vertical alliances to horizontal ones,” notes Leon Wieseltier, the Jewish scholar and literary editor of The New Republic. “They always preferred to have a relationship with the king or the bishop so as not to have to engage with the general population, of which they were deeply distrustful — and they often had reason to be distrustful. Israel, as a sovereign state, reproduced the old Jewish tradition of the vertical alliance, only this time with the Arab states. They thought that if they had a relationship with Mubarak or the king of Jordan, they had all they needed. But the model of the vertical alliance only makes sense with authoritarian political systems. As soon as authoritarianism breaks down, and a process of democratization begins, the vertical model is over and you enter a period of horizontality in which the opinions of the people — in this instance, ordinary Arabs — will matter.” As a result, Israel will have to make the man on the street “not only fear it, but also understand it. This will not be easy, but it may not be impossible. Anyway, nostalgia for dictators is not a thoughtful policy.”
I don’t know whether the current Palestinian leadership can be a partner for a secure, two-state peace with Israel, but I do know this: Israel needs to be more creative in testing whether that is possible. Because the alternative is a one-state solution that will be the death of Israel as a Jewish democracy and deadly for peace with a democratic Egypt.
And what are Morsi’s obligations? Have no illusions: the Muslim Brotherhood at its core holds deeply illiberal, anti-pluralistic, anti-feminist views. It aspires to lock itself into power and exploit a revolution it did not initiate. I just don’t think it is going to be so easy. Iran is political Islam in power with oil — to buy off all the pressures and contradictions. Saudi Arabia is political Islam in power with oil. Egypt will be political Islam in power without oil. Egypt can’t survive without tourism, foreign investment and aid to create the jobs, schools and opportunities to satisfy the Egyptian youths who launched this revolution and many others who passively supported it. Also, the U.S. cannot, will not and should not give the Muslim Brotherhood the same deal it gave Mubarak — just arrest and torture the jihadists we want and you can have a cold peace with Israel and no constitutionalism at home.
As the analyst Hussein Ibish wrote in Now Lebanon, with the Muslim Brotherhood in power, it is now vital for liberals in Egypt and abroad to focus on ensuring that Egypt’s new constitution is built on laws that constrain “the powers of government and ensure ironclad, inviolable protection for the rights of individuals, minorities and women.”
So Morsi is going to be under enormous pressure to follow the path of Turkey, not the Taliban. Will he? I have no idea. He should understand, though, that he holds a powerful card — one Israelis would greatly value: real peace with a Muslim Brotherhood-led Egypt, which could mean peace with the Muslim world and a true end to the conflict. Of course, that’s the longest of long shots. Would Morsi ever dangle that under certain terms? Again, I don’t know. I just know this: The Mubarak era is over — and with the conservative Muslim Brotherhood dominating Egypt and with conservative religious-nationalists dominating Israeli politics, both will either change their behaviors to make Camp David legitimate for both peoples or it will gradually become unsustainable.
A version of this op-ed appeared in print on July 4, 2012, on page A23 of the New York edition with the headline: What Does Morsi Mean For Israel?.