February 07, 2011 Edition 4 Palestinian-Israeli Crossfire
Egypt and the peace process
The revolution isn't over yet  - Ghassan Khatib
As far as the Palestinian cause is concerned, not a great deal of change is expected.

Negative consequences already evident in Sinai  - Yossi Alpher
Israel's hawks are becoming more hawkish and doves more dovish on the Palestinian issue.

A new axis in the making  - an interview with George Giacaman
The United States and Israel will face a crisis as to what to do.

Return to negotiations now  - Smadar Perry
Washington's behavior is worrisome.

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The revolution isn't over yet
 Ghassan Khatib
Fourteen days into the massive public protests against Egypt's regime, it is still too early to deeply analyze the situation. Let us instead touch on some of the questions and problems that the revolution--as they call it in Egypt--is creating and trying to overcome.

First, for many of us, these developments shouldn't be a surprise. Indeed, the surprise may be that it is happening after so many years. While the economy and alarming rates of unemployment and poverty are named as the main cause, one cannot leave out of the mix the deteriorating position of Egypt and the absence of dignity that Egyptians find themselves in collectively and individually. In addition, an unprecedented level of corruption has been raised by the protesters as reason for their demands.

These developments in Egypt, which followed similar ones in Tunisia, have attracted attention all over the world. Many western countries have been reacting to these developments in a hesitant, vague and confused way.

On one hand, Egypt has been a long-standing ally of the United States and western countries, especially in the two high-priority areas of relations with Israel and combating terrorism. But on the other hand, these western states are supposed to be supportive of the public's demand for democracy, reforms and combating corruption in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world.

Israel came out with the clearest reaction to these events, expressing worries about possible changes in Egypt's posture towards Israel and the Arab-Israel conflict. But otherwise, the Egyptian movement has received broad public support and enthusiasm world-wide (although expressing that in other Arab countries is not always easy, for obvious reasons).

One of the critical issues raised in discussing the possible consequences of these developments is the position and role of the political Islamic movement in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world. So far, it appears that a new era might be established where Islamists would be included in the political system. This could be a golden opportunity for all concerned.

Traditionally, the government has used the threat of Islamist control as an excuse to justify its positions and behavior. But it is useful to remember that there are two schools of thought among the Islamic movements in the area: one is completely committed to the democratic process, and the other is less explicit but leaves the door open to transforming the regime into an Islamic one. It is time for the Islamic movement in the region to make its commitment to the democratic process very clear.

As far as the Palestinian cause is concerned, not a great deal of change is expected. The Egyptian people, representing their complete political spectrum, are expected to continue their commitment to supporting the Palestinian struggle for independence and ending the occupation.

What is more significant and worth the support of all involved is that this could be a first attempt at peaceful social and political change in the Arab world. Since the end of the Arab world's colonization in the middle of the last century, political change occurred here by military coup d'etat, with a complete absence of the role of the people, and often through violence. The possibility of dramatic change through peaceful means and by popular movements is a new, positive phenomenon that should be encouraged by everybody, particularly that it might lead to a new political system based on real participation, which is a prerequisite for good governance and the kind of social and economic development that the people of the region have been aspiring to over such a very long time.-Published 7/2/2011

Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications and director of the Government Media Center. This article represents his personal views.

Negative consequences already evident in Sinai
 Yossi Alpher
Because the events in Egypt continue to fall into the category of "revolutionary situation", we know they will affect Israeli-Palestinian relations, but we do not yet know in what way. We can only speculate. This requires caution, but is nevertheless a useful exercise if we wish to prepare ourselves for possible events to come.

To begin on a positive note of hope, Egypt will remain the Arab world's most populous and powerful country. If it succeeds in democratizing gradually and with moderation, it could in the long term play a dominant role in regional peace-making and in countering, alongside Israel, militant Islamist influence.

Yet for the moment we must address more likely, and largely negative, scenarios. First, and most obviously, Egypt in the near future will probably be very busy with its own internal affairs. If the last few years of rule under the aging and ailing Hosni Mubarak were characterized by the waning of Cairo's regional influence, this state of affairs is now likely to be amplified, regardless of who rules the country. This means less Egyptian input into the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, into Fateh-Hamas reconciliation, and the like. Who, if anyone, will fill the gap is not at all clear.

As a corollary of this weakening of regional leadership, we are already witnessing a decline in Egypt's security control over northern Sinai. Last weekend's gas explosion and the Egyptian army's request that Israel permit it to deploy additional troops in Sinai (a permission required under the two countries' peace treaty) reflect the escalation, under the shadow of the unrest throughout the country, of ongoing hostility on the part of the Sinai Bedouin toward central authority. This could have important and negative ramifications for the amazingly porous Sinai-Gaza border, posing the specter of increased anti-Israel violence and lawlessness emanating both from the Strip and from Egyptian Sinai. We don't normally think of Egypt as a country beset at times of weakness by regional and ethnic separatism, in the category of Sudan or Iraq. But Sinai--northern Sinai in particular--is populated by Bedouin and, in the Rafah area, Palestinians, who do not think of themselves as Egyptians.

Apropos Gaza and its Hamas rulers, to the extent Egypt's Islamists succeed in establishing even a foothold in government in Cairo, Egypt's relationship with Hamas could be upgraded. Hamas, after all, is an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. This, in turn, could affect the standing of the West Bank-based PLO, to say nothing of the overall regional balance of power. Any enhancement of political Islam in Egypt could affect Jordan as well, thereby further isolating the Palestinian secular leadership in Ramallah.

Obviously, in this respect, an absolute worst-case scenario for Egypt (from Israel's standpoint), wherein an extremist government cancels the peace treaty, could plunge the region into a crisis situation that could divert everyone's attention away from Israeli-Palestinian relations, the peace process and the occupation. That is not likely to happen. But even the current situation, and obviously one in which Egypt becomes less accommodating toward Israel at the strategic level, is generating serious strategic rethinking among Israelis.

Sadly, to the extent that trends in this rethinking process are already evident, no one in Israel seems to be changing his/her mind: Israel's hawks are becoming more hawkish and its doves more dovish, particularly on the Palestinian issue. We already hear the advocates of a forward-looking peace process, including President Shimon Peres, advising that Israel would be far more capable of dealing with regional shockwaves if it could present the prospect of peace with its neighbors. In response, those who never really wanted a Palestinian state next door in the first place explain that events in Egypt require Israel to hold onto its territorial assets and avoid risk-taking, particularly given the instability of its neighbors. This camp, led by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, also seeks to explain to the United States and Europe that Israel is now, more than ever, their most stable and valuable friend in the region and that the events in Egypt illustrate that the region's most fundamental problems have nothing to do with Israel's existence and the Palestinian conflict.

It's early to predict how these diverse currents of Israeli strategic thought will play in Washington and Brussels in the long term. While Netanyahu can right now congratulate himself that the West's preoccupation with Egypt takes the peace process heat off Israel, he himself has a whole series of immediate weighty consequences to deal with as a result of events in Egypt. These begin, today, with fuel- and border-security. Where they end, no one knows. But it's certain that, no matter what happens in Egypt, the Palestinian issue will not go away.-Published 7/2/2011

Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

A new axis in the making
an interview with George Giacaman
bitterlemons: How do you think changes in Egypt will impact the peace process?

Giacaman: We should keep in mind that the Mubarak regime was basically a sub-contractor for Israel and the United States in the region on many issues, including Israeli-Palestinian talks. For instance, for the past several months Egypt under Mubarak has been prodding the Palestinian Authority to go back to direct negotiations and drop [its] conditions that Israel stop all settlement construction.

But more broadly speaking, I think the changes will be clear only after the election of a new Egyptian parliament--if elections are free and not rigged. Whatever regime is in existence at that time, there will subsequently be an internal opposition. Like there is in Israel. The Americans constantly bring this as an argument before the Palestinians--that the [Israeli] coalition will collapse or there is "opposition". Finally Egypt will have internal opposition on a wide variety of issues, related broadly to American policy in the region but more specifically on the question of Palestine.

From this perspective, the United States and Israel will face a crisis as to what to do. From a strategic perspective, if they are not going to "lose" Egypt then they will have to move on the peace front more seriously than they have before.

It is interesting that although it is quite early the president of Israel Shimon Peres mentioned yesterday that "because of Egypt" we should move on the peace process. I think it is clear to them that the peace treaty with Egypt, even if it is not canceled, will always be at risk if there is instability in the Palestinian context, which is bound to remain as long as there is no final agreement.

bitterlemons: Are you quite convinced that there will in fact be change in Egypt?

Giacaman: The most crucial aspect has to do with future elections for parliament. It doesn't matter if the army is still the force behind the regime, or even if Omar Suleiman or somebody like him is reelected, which seems quite unlikely.

But if you have an assembly of elected members that is sensitive to the opinion of Egyptians, then it will put pressure on policies, both internal and external. This is the crux of the matter. But this will be a gradual process, and we should not expect changes before the elections take place.

bitterlemons: How would you rate US policy during the crisis?

Giacaman: I think they went through phases. Everybody was surprised [by the events], including possibly the people who congregated in Tahrir Square. They are in touch with various elements of the regime, including the armed forces, but ultimately they are not in control of what happens.

[In the long run], we should expect that Egypt will move closer to Syria and a new axis will be formed in which Egypt will be a leading partner. Saudi Arabia and Egypt will be emboldened to put more pressure on the US vis-a-vis the Palestine question where in the past they were ineffective and ineffectual. It will take a year for this to be seen clearly. -Published 7/2/2011

George Giacaman is a political analyst and teaches at Birzeit University in the West Bank.

Return to negotiations now
 Smadar Perry
Now, especially now, when the intifada in Egypt projects out to streets and rulers' palaces throughout the Arab world and the virus of demonstrations could land at any moment in another country--this is precisely the right time to return to the negotiating table with the Palestinians. Yes, we have demonstrated maturity and political loyalty to President Hosni Mubarak. Nor do we miss an opportunity to explain how volatile and worrisome the situation is. But this is not enough. As the ring of isolation surrounding us grows tighter, we must not forget our nearest neighbors, with whom we have a peace process.

In the near future, the government in Egypt will be busy with internal affairs. Whoever the ruler is, he must first stabilize his rule, learn lessons and rebuild governing institutions. Egypt played a significant role in our negotiations with the Palestinians, even though (of course, that's the mediator's job) we were not always content with that role. We also reached unprecedented strategic understandings with the Egyptians in dealing with Gaza-related security issues. Now we must assume that this Egyptian role will disappear in the coming months, at least until summer, as the regime changes.

What is currently happening in Egypt proves, not for the first time, that the administration in Washington does not understand our region and could surprise us negatively as well. It is precisely in such a situation that we must not sit back and do nothing. No one will do the job for us; we must not rely on our allies to come to our aid, and we must not assume that time is on our side. Under the new circumstances the status quo--marching in place with a stagnant peace process--is particularly dangerous.

I have little praise for the American role in the Egyptian turmoil--the same Americans that mediate between us and the Palestinians. That role is crude and arrogant, as if an elephant had been sent to stamp on the Mubarak regime without any preparation. I'm shocked by Washington's public stance, with the president and the secretary of state presiding over an anti-Mubarak agenda almost as bad as al-Jazeera's raucous incitement. They seem to want to remove Mubarak, replace him with his new vice-president, Omar Suleiman, and dictate conditions relating to democracy and human rights, all while ignoring the code of regime tradition in our part of the world.

While the region's dictatorial regimes of course must be criticized, Washington's behavior is worrisome. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton look like elementary school teachers disciplining the naughty pupil Mubarak. They don't care if they're leading 85 million Egyptians toward anarchy. They're not thinking about the domino effect in additional countries where the young generation has the same reasons to take to the streets as do the youth of Tunisia and Egypt. Kick Ben Ali out of Tunis and Mubarak out of Cairo, and don't give any thought to how things will look afterwards: unemployment, street violence, Islamists seizing power, huge status gaps, a deep economic crisis--and all this, without a reasonable plan for emergency measures.

We must not underestimate the role played behind the scenes by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. It has branches in every Arab country, including in the Palestinian Authority. Suppose, for example, that we continue to do nothing regarding peace with the Palestinians. Suppose we rely on the other side's understandable preoccupation, so we can gain time and evade a peace process. The next phase is already tapping on our window: the Islamist movement gains strength, leveraging the slap on the cheek that the US administration has delivered to Mubarak and his supporters. PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) is also concerned about this course of events. The streets of West Bank cities are liable to fill with angry demonstrators--their young generation is no less frustrated than in Egypt--with the Islamists conniving to drive the demonstrations out of control.

Israel must take the initiative immediately. It should seize the moment and renew talks with the PLO. It should be determined to send the message that Israel is serious about moving forward rather than looking for excuses to blame the other side. There is nothing easier than blaming the Palestinians; after all, we're the stronger side.

I suggest we be not only strong, but also smart, realistic and generous. Open the negotiating file and get to work. Stop blaming the other side. This is our opportunity to engage the Palestinians. Whoever thinks the problem will just disappear if we continue postponing negotiations is deluded. We are here, they are here, and the conflict hovers over our heads. The more we evade and postpone, the more we are liable to be surprised. And no one promises us happy surprises.-Published 7/2/2011 ©

Smadar Perry is Middle East editor at Yediot Aharonot daily newspaper.