Around the world, in the corridors of power and on the streets, the word is everywhere: Egypt. But perhaps nowhere is that word uttered with more trepidation, more grim uncertainty, and more mortal stress than in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
Israeli leaders are concerned about preserving the 30-year cold peace with Egypt, signed by Hosni Mubarak's predecessor, Anwar El-Sadat, the leader who paid for that treaty with his life. They are concerned about what the dissolution of Egypt's government means for the future of the peace process. As Egypt's immediate neighbors to the north, Israelis are panicked that Egypt's slide into a power vacuum can only bode ill.
All that unease has meant that, unlike the marvel and wonder and undercurrent of admiration the Egyptian protestors have garnered from Western journalists, Israeli newspapers have been anxious and introspective
. "Can Israel only broker peace with dictators?"
asked one headline in Ha'aretz, the Israeli daily newspaper. Other headlines range from the woeful – "We're on our own" -- to the accusatory: "Obama's betrayal of Mubarak" and "A bullet in the back from Uncle Sam."
As one anonymous Israeli official told the Washington Post,
where the rest of the world sees the events as comparable to Eastern Europe in 1989, Israelis see "Teheran 1979."
In other words: the potential for an Islamist foe of Israel to rise up looms large. Said Udi Segal, diplomatic correspondent for Israel's Channel 2 news, speaking on NPR
Tuesday, "People [in Israel] were surprised by how quickly the U.S. stepped down from supporting Mubarak. [They fear] it is sending the wrong signal to other leaders in the region . . . that are not exactly Jeffersonian democracies." Many Israelis see this not as democracy in action, he continued, but "as riots." He, too, compared the situation to Iran. "We want to be on the right side," he said, "and, of course we share the view that everyone could enjoy freedom and democracy, but the problem is what will happen in between" the time Mubarak steps down and his successor appears.
With murmurs of regional unrest rumbling from around the Near East, coupled with a Hezbollah-backed leader in Lebanon, the fear is not surprising. The first public statement from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was a demand to the international community that Egypt be pressed to maintain the peace with Israel.
It's a stance that has been criticized by commentators around the world. As Daniel Levy, director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation, wrote Tuesday in Foreign Policy
:"The lack of enthusiasm on the part of some of the pro-Israel community is an understandable if regrettable phenomenon. Israel is a strong status quo power in the region and Israel's establishment considers the rule of Western-oriented dictators (especially those with strong ties to U.S. aid and the U.S. military) to have served Israel's interests. President Mubarak has been a key facilitator of Israel's agenda in the region -- partly due to his support for the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty but primarily centered around his maintenance of a 'go-nowhere' peace process which helps shield Israel from international criticism while giving Egypt the appearance of being a useful ally to the U.S."
As though to deflect those who have begun to whisper that Israel would prefer to preserve an undemocratic, dictatorial status quo, after days of round-the-clock cabinet meetings, Prime Minister Netanyahu finally spoke out Wednesday, on the Knesset floor, echoing sentiments of American leaders.
"All those who value freedom are inspired by the calls for democratic reforms in Egypt," Netanyahu intoned. "An Egypt that will adopt these reforms will be a source of hope for the world. As much as the foundations for democracy are stronger, the foundations for peace are stronger."
Aaron David Miller
, the public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars who served as an adviser to both Republicans and Democrats in the region, explained Wednesday morning on a conference call with reporters that democratic reforms may be a long time in coming – and in the meantime the region remains in flux. "This is not one regime change for another, nor is this a revolution," Miller said. "This is a multi-year or even a generational project" for change, he said.
And that means Israel is looking south, with dread. "I think Israelis will be united regardless of political views," said Miller. "This will be a glass -- not only half-empty -- but probably almost completely empty. Most Israelis will profess to see the virtues of democratic changes, and they have prided selves on being the only democracy in the region."
Despite paying lip service to belief in democracy, Israelis have great "misgivings," he explained. "The neighborhood has changed and the entire paradigm of what they have viewed as the southern anchor of security and political role in the region is in the process of becoming undone." The peace treaty with Egypt has prevented a two-front war since 1979, he said. And for that Israelis have been grateful. Egypt has also played a strong, stabilizing role in the mechanisms of the peace process.
On the peace process itself -- despite a call from Thomas Friedman
to restart the talks -- Miller pronounced them moribund. "On the peace process, I am negative," said Miller, echoing an opinion he had expressed well before Cairo exploded. "The peace process, let alone any agreement on Jerusalem, security, borders, was in deep freeze before these events, and resurrecting this process now will be excruciatingly difficult and painful . . . almost inconceivable."