A lot to gain – and to lose – in Middle East

November 27, 2012 

The Israeli-Hamas miniwar last week was the first test of the post-Arab awakening order in the Middle East. Hamas, by getting embroiled in a missile duel with Israel and then calling on Arab countries for support, particularly Egypt, was testing Cairo as much as Israel. And the question Hamas was posing to Egyptians was simple: Did Egypt have a democratic revolution last year to become more like Iran or more like China? In other words, is Egypt ready to sacrifice the Camp David peace, U.S. aid and economic development to support Hamas’ radical, pro-Iranian agenda, or not?

The answer from Cairo was no. President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood’s party did not want to get dragged into a total breach with Israel on behalf of Hamas, and instead threw Egypt’s weight into mediating a cease-fire. But that raises an even more intriguing question going forward – whether Morsi, having shown himself, for the moment, to prefer being more Deng Xiaoping than Ayatollah Khomeini, has any inclination to also be Anwar Sadat, that is, to use his clout to forge an Israeli-Palestinian breakthrough so that Egypt isn’t caught in this vice again.

It is impossible not to be tantalized by how much leverage Morsi could wield in the peace process, if he ever chose to engage Israel. Precisely because he represents the Muslim Brotherhood, the vanguard of Arab Islam, and precisely because he was democratically elected, if Morsi threw his weight behind an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, it would be so much more valuable to Israel than the cold peace that Sadat delivered and Hosni Mubarak maintained. Sadat offered Israelis peace with the Egyptian state. Morsi could offer Israel peace with the Egyptian people and, through them, with the Muslim world beyond.

Ironically, though, all of this would depend on Morsi not becoming a dictator like Mubarak, but on him remaining a legitimately elected president, truly representing the Egyptian people. That is now in doubt given Morsi’s very troubling power grab last week and the violent response from the Egyptian street.

No doubt Morsi’s price for engaging with Israel would be the Arab Peace Initiative – full Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem, save for mutually agreed-upon land swaps, and some return of refugees, in return for full normalized relations. If Morsi advanced such a proposal in direct talks with Israelis, he could single-handedly revive the Israeli peace camp.

Do I expect that? No more than I expect to win the lottery. The Muslim Brotherhood has long hated the Jewish state, as well as political and religious pluralism and feminism. Therefore, here’s what I do expect: More trouble between Israel and Hamas that will constantly threaten to drag in Egypt. Hamas is a shameful organization. It subordinates the interests of the Palestinian people to Iran (and earlier to Syria), which wants Hamas to do everything it can to make a two-state solution impossible.

Israel left all of Gaza in 2005, and Hamas had a choice: It could recognize Israel, have an open border and import computers, or it could continue to deny Israel’s existence, keep the border sealed, and smuggle in rockets. It chose rockets over computers. With each rocket that lands near Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, another Israeli says, “How can we possibly let go of the West Bank and risk our airport being shut down?” That is just what Hamas and Iran want – a permanent, grinding, democracy-eroding, legitimacy-destroying, globally isolating Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

The best way for Israel to undercut Hamas is by empowering the secular Palestinian Authority, led by Mahmoud Abbas, in the West Bank to gain greater independence and build a thriving economy, so every Palestinian can compare which strategy works best: working with Israel or against Israel.

After Sadat flew to Jerusalem, Israelis knew there was no way morally that they could hold onto the Sinai and strategically they no longer felt the need. When King Hussein of Jordan and Yasser Arafat did the same, they each got land back. Today, nothing makes Israelis feel more strategically insecure and morally secure with occupation than Hamas’ stupid rocket attacks, even after Israel has withdrawn.

So, as you can see, the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the future of Egyptian democracy and the U.S.-Israel-Arab struggle with Iran and Syria are now all intertwined. Smart, courageous leadership today could defuse the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, advance Egyptian democracy and isolate the Iranian, Syrian and Hamas regimes. Weak or reckless leadership will empower all three. This is a big moment.

Thomas Friedman, a columnist for The New York Times, may be reached at The New York Times, 620 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10018.

The Olympian is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service