Egypt's riots make Israel uneasy

“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.

There is relief in Jerusalem that the protest in Egypt has not sprung from the Islamists. The Muslim Brotherhood has been a Johnny-come-lately to the protests. Mubarak’s regime fought a bitter Islamic insurgency for years in Egypt and won.

But revolutions — if indeed the anti-Mubarak demonstrations lead to a revolution — have a way of “devouring their young,” as the 18th century German revolutionary, Georg Buchner, said. The idealism of the French Revolution turned into the terror of Robspierre, and then the aggressive wars of Napoleon Bonaparte. In the Russian revolution the early attempts at democracy were soon squashed by the tyrannies of Lenin and Stalin.

Closer to home, Israel enjoyed good relations with the Shah’s Iran. I used to be able to fly nonstop from Tel Aviv to Tehran up until 1979. In Tehran, at first, it looked as if liberals and reformers might be able to rule, but they were soon overwhelmed by the forces of militant Islam. Today’s Iran is hostile to Israel and feeds Israel’s enemies such as Hezbollah.

And so Israel watches and waits. Egypt's security chief, Omar Suleiman, whom Mubarak named as his vice president, has worked closely with Israel, and is considered reliable.

The best case possibility for Israel, not unlike the United States, would be for the Mubarak regime to survive by bending with the flood, making political reforms, allowing the people’s voice to be heard. But the reality is that, like the Shah of Iran, it is probably too late, and not in the character of the Egyptian regime to do so.

Israel’s worst fears, like our own, would be to see an Islamist regime take over from the idealistic youths on the streets who may not have the organizational skills to run the country even if they do succeed in unseating Mubarak. Israel will heave a sigh of relief if Mubarak prevails.

The shadow of the Iranian revolution is ever present in Israel, and with Hezbollah ascendant in Lebanon, and uncertainty o’re Egypt’s dark sea, the borders of Israel that looked so secure 30 years ago now seem ever more imperiled.