He won’t attack Israel and he’s unlikely to tear up the peace treaty, at least initially. But Israelis are worried that Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader and newly elected president of Egypt, will lead an isolation campaign against the Jewish state, shore up Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and bring relations between the two countries to their lowest point in more than 30 years.
Morsi defeated the candidate of the old Mubarak regime, Ahmed Shafik, by a slim margin in a runoff election over the weekend, according to preliminary results. He faces huge challenges, including a battered economy and a military that refuses to submit to civilian rule.
Israeli officials and analysts who spoke to The Daily Beast about the results said Morsi will have little time in the coming months to deal with anything but his country’s most pressing domestic matters. They include reasserting control over Sinai, where gunmen launched a cross-border attack against Israel yesterday, killing one person.
But they also predicted that if he’s unable to restore stability and stem widespread poverty, Morsi would likely resort to what Israelis see as a time-tested sop in the Arab world: blaming Israel.
“Once he understands that he has no quick solution to cope with the social and economic problems, he’ll start talking about the problem of Egypt’s relations with Israel,” says Eli Shaked, who served as Israel’s ambassador to Egypt from 2004 to 2005.
“It’s the easiest way to get populist support.”
Israel has been fretting about the fate of its 1979 peace accord with Egypt since protesters forced out longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak 16 months ago. Egypt was the first Arab country to reconcile with the Jewish state, agreeing at Camp David to normal relations in exchange for the return of Sinai, which Israel captured during the 1967 war.
During his nearly 30 years in power, Mubarak maintained strong security ties with Israel and upheld the treaty, despite polls in recent years that showed most Egyptians opposed it. The Muslim Brotherhood, officially banned but tolerated under Mubarak, often spearheaded the campaign against normalization by—among other things—barring its members from attending conferences with Israelis or visiting the Jewish state.
During the presidential campaign, Morsi pledged to honor international agreements, including the Camp David accords. Abrogating them would undoubtedly cause a rift with the United States, which provides Egypt nearly $2 billion in annual aid.
"We are not declaring war on anyone, and we do not intend to sever ties with anyone in the future, except with those who stand against the Egyptian people or attack Egypt," he told Al-Arabiya TV last November.
But Morsi also attended Brotherhood-sponsored rallies during the campaign, where anti-Israel rhetoric was harsh and commonplace. At one such rally, videotaped and posted on YouTube, a Muslim cleric is seen igniting the crowd with promises that Morsi will liberate Gaza and create an Islamic caliphate with Jerusalem as its capital.
That kind of oratory is not necessarily unusual in Arab countries, even those at peace with Israel. But Morsi can be particularly provocative when talking about Israel—and the United States—according to people who have met him. He allegedly likes to say that his views on America’s “moral decay” were formed first hand during his years in the U.S., where he studied for his doctorate in engineering in the 1980s and then taught at California State University, Northridge. Morsi’s children were born in the U.S. and hold American citizenship.
Shadi Hamid, an expert on Egypt and the director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, has interviewed Morsi twice in recent years. He described the encounters in a recent Foreign Policy article, including Morsi’s 9/11 conspiracy theories.
“He feels that because he lived in America that he somehow knows about us and feels more justified in making broad, sweeping statements about American society or foreign policy,” Hamid told me by phone. “He’ll often say at rallies, ‘I was there, I saw it first hand, I know what these people are like.’ So there’s a kind of self-righteousness.”
Such an account reinforces the notion among Israelis that even if the peace deal with Egypt remains in effect, Morsi will be hostile and antagonistic. Already, they say, the Brotherhood is drawing Egypt closer to Hamas than ever before. Given Israel’s fallout with Turkey two years ago, the Jewish state is now more isolated in the region than it has been in decades.
“We are waking up to the dawn of a different Middle East: more religious, more Islamic, and to my regret, more Israel hating,” said Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, a member of Israel’s Parliament who had a close relationship with Mubarak and made frequent visits to Cairo until his ouster.
“The main issue now [for Egyptians] is in the social and economic realms. People are looking for work, looking to make a living, looking for food. And he [Morsi] has to provide answers,” he told Israeli Army radio.
“These answers don’t go hand in hand … with war against Israel.”