By Alon Ben-Meir
NEW YORK: Since the fall of the Mubarak regime, the conventional wisdom in Israel has suggested that the emergence of an Islamist government in Egypt would necessarily be hostile to the Jewish state. Egypt’s parliamentary elections, in which the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) won close to 50 percent of the vote, only reinforced this notion, which Prime Minister Netanyahu viewed with a suspicious “wait-and” attitude. On its part, the MB Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) seems equally unwilling to change their posture towards what they still call the “Zionist entity.” That both sides are loath to talk to one another not only ignores the hard-core realities on the ground but also deepens pre-existing misperceptions.
Israel and the MB should accept the fact that they exist and will continue to exist in the same neighborhood indefinitely regardless of their feelings or beliefs about each other. Moreover, by accepting the inevitability of their mutual realities, Israel and the MB can and should cooperatively bring an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which is central to improving Israeli-Egyptian bilateral relations and remains the corner-stone of regional stability.
Representing nearly 50 percent of the Egyptian people, the MB is likely to form the new government and relies on an almost unbreakable organizational structure in control of a vast socioeconomic network deeply entrenched in the society. This is not necessarily bad news for Israel as the MB has consistently shown moderation in their overall political strategy.
Domestically, the MB is negotiating with the military to reach a power-sharing understanding and continues to move forward with its non-violent approach, which they adopted several decades ago and led them to where they are today. The MB leadership has offered to form a coalition with secular parties in the new parliament and has deliberately refrained from nominating a candidate of their own for the presidency to avoid the impression that they are the dominant powerhouse, which also carries a heavy responsibility which they do not want to shoulder at this juncture.
Internationally, the MB has committed itself to maintaining the peace treaty with Israel and cooperating with the United States. The MB and the Arab world’s Islamic parties are large and from every indication they are not likely to become another Islamic Republic à la Iran, albeit political Islam will be a part of any political system that may emerge. To be sure, the MB and Iran simply do not see eye to eye. Their bilateral relations will, at best, be based on mutual suspicion. In fact, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs committee in the Egyptian parliament, FJP member Dr. Essam Al-Arian, recently stated ominously that the Arab Spring would also reach Iran.
With the continuing impasse between Israel and the Palestinians and considering the immense influence that the MB exerts on Hamas, the MB could certainly turn into an important interlocutor between Israel and the Palestinians, particularly since Israeli-Palestinian peace will be impossible without Hamas. The MB has a vested interest in maintaining the calm along the Israeli-Gaza border. Egypt’s recent success in negotiating a ceasefire between Israel and Islamic Jihad only confirms Egypt’s significant role in this regard — a role that Cairo has repeatedly played in the past to prevent escalation of violence. Indeed, should serious violent conflict occur between Israel and Hamas, the MB, as it forms the new government, cannot come to the aid of Hamas and risk a confrontation with Israel or ignore the Egyptian people’s outcry should Israel conduct a major onslaught against Gaza. Moreover, the MB cannot tamper with the diplomatic relations with Israel without undermining the peace treaty nor can it afford to ignore calls by the newly elected People’s Assembly (the lower house Parliament) requesting the government to recall the Egyptian ambassador in Tel Aviv and expel the Israeli ambassador in Cairo, in protest of the “Israeli aggression” on Gaza.
Israel might find it easier to deal with the Egyptian military, which has been ruling the country since the coup of 1952. However, the fact that the military itself has yielded to the reality of the MB suggests a significant change in the role of the military in Egyptian politics, especially in light of the fact that the rise of Islamic parties will play a significant, if not dominant, role in the wake of the Arab Spring. Realpolitic aside, Israel has to reconcile itself with the fact that the MB has come to power through a democratic process and Israel would be wise to accept what the Egyptians have elected in their first free and fair elections in the country’s history. The MB can exert the greatest moderating influence over Hamas to accept Israel’s reality and facilitate peace negotiations between the two sides, as they have abandoned violence and accepted the peace with Israel. To be sure, the MB can serve both as a facilitator and a model.
Israel should also recognize the MB leadership as a legitimate and integral part of the Egyptian political body. Immediately after the uprising of the Egyptians in February 2011, Israel’s former ambassador in Cairo, Yitzhak Levanon, had requested permission from his superiors in the Foreign Ministry to establish a dialogue with the MB— much like the United States and several European countries. It was no surprise that the ambassador’s useful request was rejected by Israeli Foreign Minister Lieberman. This attitude only adds further to Israel’s estrangement in the eyes of the MB, the de-facto future governing authority. Indeed, how could any Israeli concern over the MB possibly be addressed without attempting dialogue?
To test the MB resolve and willingness to facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord, Israel should convey to the MB its readiness to provide general parameters of a two-state solution. In addition, Israel should further convey its preparedness to engage Hamas, along with the Palestinian Authority, in negotiations once Hamas follows the Palestinian Authority’s foot-step by formally and permanently abandoning violence as a means to achieve the Palestinians’ national objective of statehood.
Although the MB has come to terms with the existence of Israel in the Middle East, this acceptance should now transcend a reluctant commitment to maintaining the already cold peace between Egypt and Israel to a dialogue on a wider spectrum of issues. As I argued in a recent article, Egypt must engage in sustainable development projects to overcome its current dismal economic reality. Having established a state with an outstanding economic success based on sustainable development and technological breakthroughs, Israel is perhaps Egypt’s best partner in this regard, not to mention the possibilities of cooperation in the areas of education, irrigation technology, and foreign investment.
Israel should capitalize on the MB’s ascendance to power in Egypt to facilitate the engagement of Hamas and other Palestinian Islamic groups in the peace process. The sooner Israeli-Palestinian peace is achieved, the wider the door will open for coexistence and cooperation between Israel and the Islamic forces that will dominate the Arab world for years to come.
Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies. Email: [email protected]; website: www.alonben-meir.com.