The dramatic events in Egypt this winter will transform the entire Middle East in ways that are impossible to predict fully now. As the historic leader of the Arab world, change in Egypt has long presaged change elsewhere. Many will argue that in this uncertainty the Israeli-Palestinian peace process should be put on hold while we see how the dust settles. That would be a major mistake. The tsunami in Egypt adds to the urgent necessity of making peace between Israel and the Palestinians sooner rather than later.
The Jasmine Revolution that began in Tunisia at the start of the year spread to Egypt faster than anyone could imagine. Tunisia showed the anger of the Arab street could topple a dictator, something unprecedented in Arab politics. Now Egypt has demonstrated that the revolution is contagious. Libya’s Qaddafi, Yemen’s Saleh, Jordan’s King Abdullah and others face challenges unlike anything they have seen before. When Gamal Abdel Nasser over threw King Farouk in 1952 it ushered in two decades of military coups in the Arab world as other Arab generals followed his lead. Depending in part on how things play out in Cairo in the next few weeks, we could see a similar cascade of change.
So in this uncertainty should Israel and America take the safe road and hunker down putting the peace process on the back burner? Absolutely not. Of course we need to see how events in Egypt play out in the immediate future, but we should not wait long. Israel and America need to get ahead of history, not fall behind it. If the changes in Tunis and Cairo mean more representative and democratic governments are emerging in the Arab world, they will push even harder for a just and fair peace than the autocrats they are replacing. If progress toward peace is not forthcoming these governments will listen to their people, who will press for pressure on both Washington and Jerusalem to make a deal. In other words, if there is a spring time of freedom in the Arab world it will demand freedom for Palestinians and an end to occupation as well. If we want to help allies like King Abdullah, whose father King Hussein made peace with Israel, we need to listen to their urgent calls for doing more, not less, on the Palestinian issue.
Hosni Mubarak came to office in a hail of bullets in October 1981 when his predecessor Anwar el-Sadat was assassinated by Islamic extremists who believed his peace treaty with Israel was a betrayal of the Palestinian cause. The Israeli governments of the day, led by Menachem Begin, Ariel Sharon and Yitzhak Shamir, choose to stall the Palestinian autonomy talks with Egypt and instead invade Lebanon in 1982. The Israelis thought they could make a “new Middle East” that ignored Palestinian aspirations. Instead we got Hezbollah, Hamas and the first intifada. It was a historic mistake; peace would have been much easier to make in 1981 than in 2011 if only because there were far fewer settlements in the way and no Hezbollah or Hamas. Waiting to settle the Palestine question only strengthens extremism and radicals and undermines American national-security interests in the Islamic world. The best way to isolate and defeat al-Qaeda is to show that the United States is the engine for a just and secure peace, not an obstacle to it.
Secretary Hillary Clinton told the Saban Forum at Brookings last December that the Obama administration recognized its efforts to promote peace in its first two years had fallen short, but pledged to try even harder in its next two years. That was the right decision. Obviously we will need to help Egypt transition to the post-Mubarak era and to a genuine democratic future for Egyptians. One way to help strengthen the democrats and moderates who we want to rule Egypt next, like Mohamed ElBaradei, is to move forward with ending the open sore of the Palestinian issue sooner rather than later. Egypt has always had more weight with Palestinian leaders than any other country, and it is the door to Gaza. As a new Egypt emerges, it should be an American partner in urgent diplomacy to find a breakthrough to peace. The best way to preserve and protect the Israel-Egypt peace is to finish what Sadat wanted, an Israeli-Palestinian peace alongside it.
Bruce Riedel is a senior fellow at the Saban Center in the Brookings Institution. He was head of the Egypt desk at the CIA in 1981. His new book is Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America and the Future of the Global Jihad.