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ISRAEL: Egypt backlash, the view from next door

February 1, 2011 |  6:01 pm

Leaders, media, academics and arm-chair politicians (basically most Israelis) continue to monitor the upheaval rocking its big neighbor, just one door down. If there's a theme de jour, it seems to be "careful what you wish for."

Monday, during a news conference with visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu noted that while the main cause of unrest doesn't stem from radical Islam, such forces could take over a country in turmoil. The next day he said -- in a closed-door diplomatic-security consultation -- that Israel supports advancing free and democratic values in the Middle East, but warned that neither would be achieved if radical forces are allowed to exploit the processes and take power.

President Shimon Peres also spoke in this vein, advising the world to study the results of the pressure for free elections that brought Hamas rule to Gaza but not a single day of democracy to Gazans since. "Democracy is not just elections because if you elect the wrong people, you bring an end to democracy." True democracy, he said, starts the day after elections, in ensuring the people's human rights and welfare.

These messages are intended for the West, whose pressure on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has been successful, whether by design or miscalculation, to the point where results could be out of the comfort zone for Israel and others.

The question is, who needs to do what about it.

According to the media, Israel engaged in backstage efforts to get the West to tone down rhetoric against Mubarak, whose regime it credits with keeping stability and peace. On Tuesday, the U.S. dispatched an envoy to Egypt, Frank G. Wisner, veteran diplomat and former ambassador to Cairo in the 1980s.  Israeli media described his mission as negotiating a "dignified way out" for Mubarak with Vice President Omar Suleiman, whose appointment was "too little but mostly too late," according to one commentator. There was little negotiation and the U.S. proposal was rejected.

Israel's having -- or thinks it is -- one of those "told you so" moments, which it's trying to be rather mature about. But these are short-lived and one can't bask -- or wallow -- in them for long. Sooner or later, you need to get back to work.

And work means the peace process.

Opposition leader Tzipi Livni said Tuesday that Israel needs to take dramatic action that will end the conflict with the Palestinians; this will help moderate regimes in the region. Netanyahu also sees a lesson in regional unrest for the peace process, but a different one. The possibility of here-today-gone-tomorrow alliances -- he often nods to both Iran and Turkey as examples -- proves security is the key to peace. Security is imperative, Netanyahu says, to sustain any peace achieved through direct negotiations and keep it in place, "should the peace unravel."

News conferences with Merkel served Israeli leaders an opportunity to address Egypt, Iran and the peace process, but she wasn't just an extra. Given recent events, she said, it is urgent to accelerate the peace negotiations. After meeting with Peres, Merkel said peace between Israel and the Palestinians "must ensure security for Israel, define the borders of the Palestinian state and resolve other core issues on the agenda." Meeting with students at Tel Aviv University, where she received an honorary doctorate, Merkel was more direct. You are missing a historic opportunity now, Merkel said, and "history will not give you many more."

The peace process will be on the agenda of the so-called quartet, scheduled to meet in the coming days. While members try to come up with a way to revive the negotiations, Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat is urging them to recognize a Palestine within the 1967 borders, according to media reports. This is the current vein of Palestinian diplomatic strategy but also taps into current events, with rights and democracy in the air.

Back to the regional flux. The time has come to start preparing for a new regional order, said an editorial in the Haaretz newspaper Tuesday. "Instead of clinging to the old, collapsing order, Netanyahu must seek peace agreements with both the Palestinians and with Syria in order to make Israel a more welcome and desirable neighbor," it advised.

 

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With "stability" this week's buzzword, the single-most stable fixture in Israel is expressly unstable these days. Tuesday evening, Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak canceled the appointment of Yoav Galant, who was supposed to take over as military chief of staff mid-February, putting an end to a long saga. Yair Naveh has been tapped with a temporary two-month appointment, during which authorities will go back to the drawing board to select the chief of staff. Though not a surprise under the circumstances, the precedent is still a shocker and army sources say the military is being weakened at a most dangerous time. Perhaps it won't necessarily change anything in the big picture but together with other things, it's not adding any joy in Mudville tonight.

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