For many years, the Egyptian regime allowed Israel to have it both ways: to enjoy the benefits of peace with the most important Arab country while perpetrating a reality in the occupied territories that even the United States, Israel's closest ally, believes to be illegal. The Israeli leaders adopted Prime Minister Menachem Begin's perception that the Palestinian chapter in the Camp David Accords was just a fig leaf for the Egyptians. He believed the Israeli occupation didn't really bother Sadat, but he needed to show the Arab world that he didn't betray the Palestinians or turn his back on the Arab consensus. This was partially true at times during the last thirty years, but it is definitely not the case today. The Al Jazeera TV network will bring into the living rooms of millions of Egyptians the next images of Israeli soldiers chasing Palestinian demonstrators. And the Egyptian populace isn’t likely to let its leaders keep business as usual vis-à-vis the Jewish State.
The future of the Israeli-Egyptian relationship is not entirely in the hands of the Israelis. Israeli decision makers cannot determine who will be the leader of their next-door neighbor. If the Israelis wish to maintain their strategic interest in the neighborhood, they must realize that, whichever way the Egyptian elections go—whether toward a new, democratic era or a theocratic regime—it will be a dramatic step toward the end of Israel's impunity season.
Akiva Eldar is the chief political columnist and an editorial writer for Haaretz. His columns also appear regularly in the Ha'aretz-Herald Tribune edition.