The recent overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and his Tunisian counterpart Zine el-Abidine ben Ali has sparked a wave of enthusiasm across the Middle East, giving hope for peaceful democratic change in lands long ruled by despotic forms of government. But there is at least one country in the region that views the tumultuous events of the past month with something less than enthusiasm: Israel.
Since its declaration of independence in 1948, the Jewish state has become used to living in a tough neighborhood. In 1948, 1967, and 1973, it fought existential wars against well-equipped and larger Arab armies -- Egypt among them -- winning each conflict and eventually securing itself as the major military force in the region.
A Different World
The face of Middle Eastern politics changed definitively in 1978, when then-Egyptian President Anwar Sadat signed the Camp David Accords with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin on the White House lawn. For nearly 30 years, that "cold peace," as Israelis termed it, was maintained by Sadat's successor Mubarak, who was annually rewarded with over $1 billion in U.S. aid for keeping up his end of the bargain. That treaty, one Israeli official says, has served as the "psychological cornerstone" of the country's relationship with a hostile Arab world.
The Camp David Accords, however, were never particularly popular with the Egyptian people. Sadat was assassinated in 1981 by an Islamic radical, who was praised as a martyr across the region, and had a major Tehran street named after him by the government in Iran. And though Mubarak may have honored the peace treaty, he encouraged anti-Israel and anti-Semitic incitement in Egypt, which reached a height in 2002, when Egyptian state television broadcast a 41-part series dramatizing the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," an early-20th-century conspiracy tract alleging Jewish global domination.
Whatever Mubarak's faults, however, he was widely seen in Israel as a source of stability, certainly preferable to the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist movement founded in 1928 that has long been the most organized opposition group in Egypt. The Brotherhood has sent mixed signals regarding the treaty, with some officials saying that it will be revoked, while others saying the new Egyptian government should adhere to it.
At this month's Herzliya Conference, an annual gathering of top Israeli security and defense officials outside Tel Aviv, the mood about Egypt was nervous.
"We may witness a domino effect with the Muslim Brotherhood taking over Egypt and other countries," said Shaul Mofaz, a former defense minister and member of parliament. He called on the U.S. government to suspend military aid to Egypt and redirect it toward civilian programs.
Egypt shares a border with the Gaza Strip, which has been ruled by the militant Islamist group Hamas since 2007. Many in Israel fear that a new Egyptian regime would end the blockade on the strip or facilitate the supply of weapons to Hamas.
Some Israelis directed their criticism toward the U.S. government, which they believe has made mistakes on two fundamental issues: not standing by a loyal ally, and pushing for democracy in a society that is not yet ready for such a monumental change.
"It seems the Americans don't understand [that] democracy is something much bigger than free elections," said Boaz Ganor, the founder and executive director of the International Policy Institute for Counterterrorism. "This doesn't happen in one day."
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the influential Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, countered that the U.S. administration well understands the potential danger of a Muslim Brotherhood government in Cairo.
"The administration has reassured us that they have no intention of dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood," he said. "I do think that has been and is U.S. policy. I think they recognize they can be a destabilizing force and we don’t know about the foreign influences that exist within the Brotherhood and how cleverly in the past they've played these kinds of situations."
Hoenlein said the Brotherhood was skillful at exploiting instability. "They exploit these kinds of eruptions and they play it smart," he said. "They don’t go out front because they know that will evoke a response so you play behind the scenes and you put on the most moderate face to make you most acceptable, and then they introduce their ideology."
The fear that Egypt will become more closely allied to Iran, Syria, and their proxies Hamas and Hizballah was echoed by Barry Rubin, the director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center and author or editor of over a dozen books on the Middle East, Islam, and the Arab world.
"They're all saying the same thing: 'America is weak; America is in retreat; America can’t save its friends; we are strong; we are advancing; the future belongs to us.' And this is a disaster," Rubin said.
Officially It's All Good
Officially, Israeli leaders have been hesitant to sound skeptical about events in Egypt, mindful that the Camp David Accords are viewed there as an agreement struck with a corrupt regime. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told ABC News that he did "not think the relationship between Israel and Egypt is under any risk or that there is any kind of operational risk awaiting us."
In a speech to the nation on February 4, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu cautiously welcomed calls by Egyptians for democratic reforms, yet expressed the fear that many Israelis feel. "All those who cherish human liberty, including the people of Israel, are inspired by genuine calls for reform and by the possibility that it will take place," he said, adding that "we expect any government of Egypt to honor the peace."
It's not just the Muslim Brotherhood that has threatened to tear up the Camp David Accords. Earlier this week, Ayman Nour, a leader of Egypt's secular opposition who ran against Mubarak in 2005 and was imprisoned by the regime, told Egyptian radio that "the Camp David accord is over."
On the other hand, Mohamed ElBaradei, the former diplomat who took on a leadership role during the protests that brought down Mubarak, recently told NBC News that "I assume Egypt will continue to respect" the treaty.
One prominent Israeli who diverged from the consensus is Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident and leader of the "refusenik" movement for Jewish emigration. In an interview with the "Jerusalem Post" this week, Sharansky said: "This [untenable] pact between the free world and a bunch of dictators ostensibly bringing us stability was not broken by the free world. It was broken by the people in the streets. We have to go with this. This is the chance. I hope America will take it."