Commentary by Romana Michelon – 19 July 2013
A little over a year ago, the world’s eyes were fixated on Egypt. Following the huge popular demonstrations that led to the fall of Hosni Mubarak, on June 24, 2012, Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Mohammed Morsi won the election, and became the country’s first democratically elected President. Egypt was in the spotlight again two weeks ago when, following over a year of popular unrest and growing exasperation, a military coup led to the ouster of Morsi and the installment of Constitutional Court Judge Adly Mansour as interim-president. What will happen next remains a great unknown. The international community expects the new regime to keep its promise and organize democratic elections as soon as possible. In the meantime, Egypt still runs the risk of entering into full-blown civil conflict, as certain elements among Morsi’s supporters have vowed to violently oppose the expulsion of their President.
Israel’s cabinet was ordered not to publicly discuss the events in Egypt and has yet to issue a formal response to the change in power. Nonetheless, several officials have admitted their concern that jihadists might try to take advantage of Egypt’s instability to try to carry out attacks in Israel. What is more, they have hinted that the Israeli government is wary of negotiating the Arab League’s proposal for an exchange of territories in this climate of political instability and upheaval. Taking these factors into consideration, it appears as though the Israeli administration is using the events in Egypt as an excuse to delay the resumption of peace talks with the Palestinians.
Israel has a right to be concerned about the implications of continued instability in Egypt for its own national security. Morsi’s followers have announced that they will continue to stage demonstrations until their president is reinstated, increasing the chances that the situation will remain volatile in Egypt’s largest population centers. Despite the initiation of Operation Eagle in August 2012, which saw Egyptian forces entering the Sinai to pursue insurgents and destroy smuggling tunnels leading into the Gaza strip, Israel fears that widespread unrest could lead to a decreased presence of the Egyptian army in the peninsula. This relative vacuum could then present an opportunity for Islamist militants to strike at Israel. Confirming suspicions of this nature, the high number of skirmishes between Islamist fighters and Egyptian and Israeli security forces near the Gaza Strip and southern Israeli border in the immediate aftermath of the coup represent an understandably significant security concern.
Despite the risks it faces, Israel has more reason to be optimistic about the ouster of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. For one thing, Israel’s relations with Egypt’s army-dominated security services have traditionally been cooperative, and the two have a long history of jointly combating armed groups destabilizing the Sinai Peninsula. Even under Morsi, this shared security interest remained unaffected. In line with their traditional stance, Egyptian security forces have today launched a large-scale offensive against militants in the peninsula.
In addition, the blow suffered by the Islamists in Egypt has severely weakened the position of Hamas. Although never the Brotherhood’s unconditional ally, Supreme Guide Mohammad Badie and others generally favored strong ties with Hamas, an issue that exacerbated tensions between the army and the Brothers. In turn, Hamas made strategic use of the ascendance of Morsi to significantly increase its standing vis-à-vis Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and the international community.
The loss of Morsi therefore represents an undeniable setback for Hamas which, as a result of its decision to distance itself from the Assad regime in Syria, also lost its base in Damascus and its financial support from Tehran. Finally, Morsi’s departure does not appear to have deterred the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority from actively engaging in peace negotiations. Quite the contrary, Mahmoud Abbas has restated his commitment to the Arab Peace Initiative after the change of power, has applauded the coup because of the way it weakened Hamas, and regards the ouster of Morsi as an opportunity to show Palestinians in Gaza the unsustainability of political Islam. In this way, he hopes to end intra-Palestinian divisions and strengthen Fatah’s position in US-mediated negotiations with Israel.
With Israel’s government largely composed of ultra-nationalist parties, who on principle oppose the division of land at all costs, Netanyahu’s negotiation position is murky. But important signals are on green, with Egyptian-Israeli security cooperation intact, Hamas’ position severely weakened, and the Palestinian Authority motivated to support US-mediated diplomatic efforts.
Israel cannot hide behind the events in Egypt. At this critical stage, political idleness and a wait-and-see approach in the peace process is uncalled for. Particularly, it represents a conscious attempt to undermine the centrality of the Palestinian question in the Middle East, provides Israel with an excuse to stall continued diplomatic efforts towards peace, entrenches a status quo which benefits only the ideological outlook of the current Israeli administration, and complicates efforts to reach a two-state solution.
As US Secretary of State John Kerry returns to the region to work on Israeli-Palestinian peace, there is speculation of an imminent agreement to re-launch negotiations. In such case, the Israeli administration faces an important choice. Either it sticks to its current policy and allows security concerns to overshadow an opportunity for peace, or it can join the Palestinians in constructively working towards a two-state solution to the conflict.
Romana Michelon is a graduate student of Conflict Resolution at King’s College London. She holds an MSc in International Relations from the University of Amsterdam, and has worked for think-tanks in Madrid and Maastricht. Her postgraduate dissertation delves into the role of the Jewish ultra-Orthodox community in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. She tweets @RomanaMic