My fingers burned with excitement. It was just weeks after Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's dramatic trip to Israel in November 1977 and my boss had just returned from Egypt, the first Israel Defense Forces officer ever to visit that nation. I was a young officer, and the "present" he brought me — a standard tourist postcard — was the most precious one I could imagine. It was something from Egypt, and it was not going to explode. Until Sadat's trip, and the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace treaty that followed, that sort of contact had been as tangible to Israelis as the moon. The postcard was a sublime gift.
I have been reminded of that moment recently.
On Friday, an Egyptian mob broke through barriers and attacked the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, forcing the Israeli ambassador to flee. After initially dodging frantic calls from Israeli leaders and U.S. ones as well, the Egyptian government finally responded and sent in commandos to save embassy personnel from an all but certain violent death.
Two weeks earlier, Palestinian terrorists killed eight Israeli civilians along the border with Egypt, and in the firefight that followed, IDF troops accidentally killed a number of Egyptian soldiers. The provisional government in Egypt initially threatened to recall its ambassador from Israel, and thousands demonstrated against Israel in Cairo.
Since the fall of Hosni Mubarak, there has been increasingly strident anti-Israeli invective in Egypt, including calls by a number of presidential candidates to recall the ambassador. The Muslim Brotherhood repeatedly has advocated downgrading or even abrogating the peace treaty, and the Egyptian-Israeli gas line — the lone remnant of bilateral normalization — has been bombed multiple times.
Israel, like other countries, watched the ouster of Mubarak with awe. We all rejoice when despots fall. In Israel's case, however, this has been tempered by a nightmare, the possibility that Mubarak's downfall might portend the end of over three decades of peace.
It wouldn't happen overnight, and it might not be the result of a conscious decision by Egypt to go back to war with Israel. More likely, it would be the unintended result of a spark lighted on one of the other fronts, in conflicts with Hezbollah or Hamas, or perhaps the product of overwhelming public pressure on the Egyptian government.
The events of the past weeks have brought the nightmare much closer to reality. We have seen the hate-filled narrative before and have no desire to do so again.
For more than three decades the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty has been the linchpin of U.S. policy in the Mideast, allowing the United States to build a pro-Western Arab camp, contain radicals and promote peace. For Israel, it has been even more crucial, putting an end to the warfare with the greatest of its adversaries and allowing it to devote its resources both to other fronts and, more important, domestically.
All sides must now do everything possible to prevent a collapse of the peace treaty and the horrific possibility of renewed hostilities. The Egyptian government's response has been mixed so far. At a time of great domestic sensitivity, it has reiterated that it remains fully committed to the treaty, though its initial response to the embassy attack was very worrisome. Israel's response to the large-scale rocket attacks on its cities and towns in recent days was intentionally limited, to avoid further exacerbating tensions with Egypt. The U.S. mediated.
There are dark clouds on the horizon. The new Egyptian government, to be elected this year, may prove far less responsible than the provisional military one now in power. The U.N. debate on Palestinian statehood in late September is likely to inflame passions throughout the Arab world, certainly in Egypt. Massive Palestinian demonstrations planned in the West Bank in support of the U.N. move will further exacerbate tensions, even if we optimistically assume no significant clashes with Israeli forces. Hezbollah, Hamas and other terrorist organizations may light the fire at any moment, as may a desperate Syrian President Bashar Assad, dearly clinging to power. All may have an interest, as may Iran, in a significant escalation that could divert attention from Syria and draw Egypt back into confrontation with Israel.
The time to act to prevent catastrophe is now. An Israel worried about the future of peace with Egypt will be understandably less inclined to go forward with the Palestinians, but the need for a major diplomatic initiative, together with military restraint, is greater than ever. The Palestinians must ensure that the U.N. vote becomes a basis for negotiations, not conflict. The U.S. must bring all of its influence to bear on the Palestinians to encourage them to do so, and on Egypt to ensure that it continues to pursue a peaceful course. Responsible Egyptians must make their voices heard.
Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security advisor in Israel, is a senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School.