As the streets of Gaza exploded with celebration on Friday night with masked Hamas militants marching defiantly to cheer the resignation of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, Israelis reacted with quiet and deep concern because the regional leader on whom they had relied most was suddenly gone.
The government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu maintained the same studied silence it has sustained for more than two weeks on the assumption that nothing it said could serve its interests: If it praised the pro-democracy movement, it would be seen as disloyal to its ally, Mubarak. If it favored Mubarak, it would be dismissed as a supporter of dictatorships.
However, behind the scenes, officials willing to share their thoughts anonymously expressed worry because they believed that whoever followed Mubarak would be less friendly to Israel.
“We don’t know who will be running things in the coming months in Egypt, but we have to keep two things in mind,” one top official said. “The first is that the only example we have of this kind of thing in the region is Iran in 1979. You can’t take that out of your mind. The second is that if Egypt pulls back in any way from its peace with Israel, it will discourage anyone else in the region, including the Palestinians, from stepping forward. So the regional implications for us are significant.”
The official said it was more likely than not that Egypt would maintain its peace treaty with Israel and added that, in any case, relations with Israel would probably not be among the first concerns of the incoming Egyptian authorities.
Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman, the former head of Egyptian intelligence, has longstanding relations with Israel and is respected there. However, his role seems subordinate, at best, to the military council that appears to be running Egypt. Still, relations between the Israeli and Egyptian defense establishments have long been cordial. However, officials worry that cooperative efforts could slow or halt.
Last week, Netanyahu did speak publicly in Jerusalem about Egypt before a group called the European Friends of Israel. He laid out three possible situations if Mubarak resigned.
“There are many possible outcomes beyond the liberal, democratic models that we take for granted in our own countries,” he said.
“First, Egyptians may choose to embrace the model of a secular reformist state with a prominent role for the military. There is a second possibility that the Islamists exploit the influence to gradually take the country into a reverse direction — not towards modernity and reform, but backward,” he said.
“And there’s still a third possibility — that Egypt would go the way of Iran, where calls for progress would be silenced by a dark and violent despotism that subjugates its own people and threatens everyone else,” he said.
Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, a former Israeli defense minister who is a longtime friend of Mubarak, said by telephone — and on Israeli television — that he had spoken with Mubarak hours before his Thursday night speech to the nation. Mubarak, he said, seemed to know he had no choice but to leave and Ben-Eliezer agreed. However, Mubarak saw great peril ahead.
“He spoke about a snowball that was starting to roll, which would not leave a single Arab state untouched in either the Middle East or North Africa,” Ben-Eliezer said. “He spoke of his disappointment with the Americans. He said: ‘You will have to grow accustomed to one fact — that you’re going to live in a radical Islamic world, and no one can promise what will happen tomorrow.’ For me, he was one of the pillars of the peace process.”