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Egypt's riots make Israel uneasy

Mubarak government has been a bulwark to Middle East peace but the riots could change that.

Egypt anti-Mubarak riots
Egyptians demanding the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, stand by a burning police vehicle in Cairo on January 28, 2011. (Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images)

“Sound the loud timbrel o’re Egypt’s dark sea,

Jehovah has triumph’d — his people are free.”

- Thomas Moore

BOSTON — As the waves of protest sweep over the Arab nation, none watch from the sidelines with more concern than the Israelis. Except, perhaps, for its close relationship with the United States, no country is more important to Israel than Egypt.

From that magical moment when Egypt’s president, Anwar Sadat, brought peace with him to Jerusalem in the summer of 1977, Israel has been free from the fear of annihilation that had hung over the Jewish state since its birth. For without Egypt, the largest of all Israel’s foes, the possibility that Arab armies could push the Israelites into the sea was removed in one dramatic gesture.

Without Egypt, there was no longer an Arab military option against Israel. And the joy that those of us who were lucky enough to be in Jerusalem when Sadat came to town has never since been equaled in that city. It was as if the Red Sea had metaphorically parted to bring them peace from Egypt instead of a vengeful pharaoh.

And the joy in the streets of Cairo was no less than when Israel’s Menachem Begin made his reciprocal visit to Egypt. Egyptian cab drivers refused to take fares from visiting Israelis, some of whom had not been there since the days of the British Palestine Mandate.

Israelis haven’t forgotten how touch and go it was in 1973 when Sadat made a surprise attack across the Suez canal and caught the Israelis napping. Israelis had all the intelligence they needed, but in the end they just couldn’t believe that the Egyptians had it in them to make a successful crossing, so easily had they been defeated in 1967. There was a moment when it looked as if all might be lost, and there were thoughts in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem about bringing out nuclear weapons. But as Henry Kissinger later pointed out, Sadat had surprised everybody by making war to make peace. He needed to restore Egyptian pride, that had been so destroyed by Israeli arms, in order to bring his people around to making peace.

Israel doesn’t have the luxury of the United States, trying to measure its reaction to unfolding events by balancing support for human rights and democracy against loyalty to an old and important ally. For Israel peace with a stable and reliable Egypt is a vital necessity, and Hosni Mubarak has withstood the test of time. But unlike the United States, Israel is not called upon to make a stand vis-a-vis Murbarak versus the demonstrators. Israel knows that its silence is what the situation requires, that to voice support for one side or the other would be counterproductive.

Soon after Sadat was assassinated, Hosni Mubarak made it clear that the peace with Israel would continue. And that peace survived the disappointment of Israel’s failure to remove the occupation from Palestinian lands that Egypt thought had been part of the bargain. The peace survived Israel’s invasions of Lebanon, which Israel might have been hesitant to make were Egypt still armed against them.

It may have been a cold peace all these years, Israelis often visit Egypt but seldom do Egyptians visit Israel. Nonetheless, vital cooperation between the two countries has held fast — so far.