Updated 1 p.m. July 9, 2013
After the ouster of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi on July 3, Israel responded according to a well-rehearsed script.
It kept quiet. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered his Cabinet to not make public statements.
“Israel has learned in these crises to avoid public comment,” said David Makovsky, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy Project on the Middle East Peace Process. “Anything Israel supports in the region will be used against it.”
Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood-backed government was hostile to Israel, but Israel’s essential security relations with its largest and most powerful neighbor remained strong. That’s because “Israel’s biggest ally [in Egypt] is the military,” Makovsky said.
And it was the military that injected itself into the center of political life last week when it deposed Morsi and suspended the constitution amid mass demonstrations. Security forces quickly rounded up dozens of Muslim Brotherhood leaders and shut down two satellite channels considered sympathetic to the Islamist group. On Monday, the military fired on demonstrating Morsi supporters, killing 51 and wounding hundreds.
Israel was nervous about the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power in 2012, following the Arab Spring downfall of longtime President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and a year of direct military rule. The Islamist group espouses the destruction of Israel, and as a leader of the brotherhood, Morsi in 2010 urged Egyptians to “nurse our children and our grandchildren on hatred” for Jews and Zionists, according to a video that resurfaced this year. When Morsi took office, Hamas, an offshoot of the brotherhood, was firing rockets from Gaza into southern Israel.
But once in office, he demonstrated a pragmatism that gave hope to the United States and Israel.
Morsi didn’t abrogate Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel, as many feared he would. And he negotiated an end to the shooting war between Israel and Hamas in December 2012, winning plaudits from the international community. Rather than throw his support behind Hamas, he bombed tunnels between Egypt and Gaza to stop the flow of arms.
“Morsi didn’t meet with any Israelis,” Makovsky said. “But Israel’s worst fears didn’t materialize.”
“Israel got a good deal with Morsi,” said Paul Scham, executive director of the Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies at the University of Maryland. “Morsi was preoccupied with domestic problems.”
It’s unclear if Morsi made a tactical decision to satisfy the United States on the issues of Israel and security so he could have a free hand to impose the changes he wanted to make domestically, Makovsky said.
Daniel Brumberg, an associate professor of democracy and governance at Georgetown University, believes Morsi’s removal doesn’t make Israel more secure or enhance American power in the region.
“The most likely outcome will be escalating internal conflict and bloodletting and an increased likelihood of civil conflict,” he said. “The winners will be the extremists.”
“There’s very little the U.S. can do, other than encourage the Egyptian military to take a bold step and create an inclusive government that includes the Muslim Brotherhood,” he added.
The U.S. does have leverage. It gives Egypt $1.3 billion in military annually. “But an overt threat to withdraw that support could backfire,” Brumberg said.
Israel reportedly asked the U.S. not to cut off aid to Egypt because it could hurt Israel’s security, Haaretz reported.
Sammy Smooha, a professor of sociology at the University of Haifa, said Israelis get anxious when there is instability in neighboring countries. However, “I think we have to support this good development,” he said. “Despite the instability, this is good in the sense that it is opening up Egyptian society.”
Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, is a big regional loser from Morsi’s downfall. The Islamist rulers of Gaza were longtime allies with Syria. But with the Muslim world dividing along sectarian lines over the Syrian civil war, Sunni Hamas began distancing itself from Damascus. Now, suddenly, it finds itself without a Syrian patron or crucial Iranian funds, and no friends at the top in Cairo.
“It’s a devastating blow,” Makovsky said.
Yet a cornered Hamas could react violently. “Until last week there was a paradoxical stability caused by Syria’s civil war,” Scham said. “Morsi’s departure creates a new instability that could make Hamas take more militant action.”
If Hamas is down, then the rival Palestinian Authority and President Mahmoud Abbas are up, relatively speaking.
“The fact that they’re without a prime minister and in a weakening economic state, it’s hard to say they’re in a strong position,” Scham said.
But Makovsky believes it might be enough to boost the chances for renewed Palestinian-Israeli negotiations.
“Abbas was one of the first to send congratulations to the military,” he said. “It will be interesting to see if he’s more forthcoming when [Secretary of State John] Kerry returns to the region.”
In the aftermath of the coup, Israel might find it advantageous to move forward on a deal with the Palestinians, Brumberg said.
“Israelis are looking around the neighborhood and seeing the whole place blowing up,” Brumberg said.
With Egypt in turmoil, a civil war in Syria that is destabilizing Lebanon and Jordan, and Iran making progress on its nuclear program, stability on Israel’s eastern border might look increasingly attractive.
“Israel can take advantage of the situation to try to make a fair deal with the Palestinians,” Scham said. “I’m not predicting it. I’m advocating it.”
Kerry might make that argument to both the Palestinians and Israel, but Brumberg cautioned that politics almost always trumps peacemaking.
The Israeli government is split on whether it favors a two-state solution with the Palestinians, he said. “When Bibi [Netanyahu] is the moderate in his own government, it doesn’t look like a good chance to move the ball down the road.”
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