Arab Sprung

The New Egypt's Mild Challenges To Israel

In his debut speech before the U.N.'s General Assembly, the first issue raised by Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, after a few initial pleasantries, was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He moved from topic to topic—Syria, development, pan-Africanism and so on—but returned again and again to Israel, without ever mentioning the Jewish state by name. And the biggest challenge to Israel might not have been about the Palestinians, settlements or Jerusalem, but over the nuclear standoff with Iran.

"The will of the people, especially in our region," Morsi said, "no longer tolerates the continued non-accession of any country to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the non-application of the safeguards regime to their nuclear facilities, especially if this is coupled with irresponsible policies or arbitrary threats." Morsi called for a nuclear-free Middle East, and—here's looking at you, Israel—"participation of all concerned parties without exceptions."

Coupled with complaints about Israeli treatment of the Palestinians—calls for an end to settlement expansion, particularly in Jerusalem ("their independent state, with Jerusalem as its capital"), and pledging support to Palestinian moves at the U.N.—Morsi's speech might be seen as a challenge, if not an affront, to Israel. "If I'm an Israeli policymaker listening to Morsi's speech," tweeted Foreign Policy's David Kenner, "I'm struggling to figure out how I can work with this guy." But Egypt's challenges might not be as bad—or as different from the past—as notoriously dour Israeli policymakers might think.

With regard to the Palestinian issue, there can be little doubt that the Muslim Brotherhood's long history of animosity lends credence to Israel's worries. Deposed dictator Hosni Mubarak, much to the consternation of the pro-Palestinian public to whom he was totally unaccountable, took an accommodationist stance with Israel. There was intelligence cooperation, help on the Egyptian border with Gaza and at best tempered pushes for a peace process. Mubarak won favor with and remained on the dole from the U.S. because he held up Egypt's end of the Camp David Accords.

Morsi strikes an undoubtedly more forceful posture. But, for whatever it's worth, Morsi also pledged again on Wednesday to uphold Camp David: "I say it loudly to those wondering about our position vis-a-vis the international agreements and conventions that we have previously adhered to: we are committed to what we have signed on." And Egypt has so far eased restrictions between itself and Gaza, but also addressed an Israeli security concern by cracking down on tunnels after a mini-crisis on its border, even as contacts with Hamas, an ideological ally of the Brotherhood, grow more robust. That could be the thing about Egypt that proves most difficult to Israel: should the Brotherhood's newly moderated positions on Israel rub off on Hamas and should Egypt broker a unity deal between the Islamist faction and Fatah in the West Bank, pressure could grow on Israel to ink a deal with the Palestinians. That pressure flies in the face of the longstanding public Israeli position of never dealing with Hamas; its hand, though, could be forced by Arab pressure with Egypt at the helm.

What about Israel's concerns over Iran? Morsi's rhetoric on nuclear weapons sounded an awful lot like Mubarak's: the former dictator, too, called for a nuclear-free Middle East. Today, Morsi said, "The will of the people, especially in our region, no longer tolerates the continued non-accession of any country to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the non-application of the safeguards regime to their nuclear facilities, especially if this is coupled with irresponsible policies or arbitrary threats." If these calls remain a priority for Morsi, it could spell trouble for Israel's unyielding campaign to build consensus against Iran; Israeli nukes are, as Tony Karon remarked, the "Achilles heel" of the Israeli and American effort to unify the world against Iran's nuclear program.

But there's a silver lining here: While Mubarak reportedly rejected black market nuclear weapons, the Muslim Brotherhood, before rising to power, pushed for an Egyptian nuclear weapons program, even supporting an Iranian bomb on the basis that it would deter Israel. A Muslim Brotherhood president who speaks forcefully in favor of banning nuclear weapons surely must be preferential to one who supports a nuclear bomb in Cairo or Tehran's hands as a deterrence to Israel, no? Either way, Israel's nuclear monopoly will be busted; siding with more weapons over none seems like folly. But Israel has no intention of participating in a program for a nuclear-free region, and thus the challenge of Morsi's strong support for the call.

The Iran nuclear issue will play out as it does, and only time will tell whether it ends in war, dueling nuclear powers, the far-fetched possibility of a nuclear-free region or, most likely of all, the continuing status quo of Iranian advances toward nuclear capability and ever-rising tensions in the region. And the Palestinians—chastened by the fiscal drubbing they took over the last year—seem likely to avoid controversy by only seeking non-member observer status, and not for a vote before the U.S. elections at that. So that drama may not play out quite yet either.

Looking forward, though, both these issues will come to a head. This is the argument people make for Israel to make peace now because of the Arab Spring, not postpone it due to inherent uncertainty. Things could get worse, much worse. In that respect, Mosri's speech seems an awful lot like a free pass—for the meantime. What perhaps makes Egypt's mild or heavy-handed criticisms more troubling to Israel is that Morsi's pledges—and his threats—will be accountable to the Egyptian people. Dictators were so much easier. Stating that you'll do something about the Palestinians and never doing it could spell political problems for the leader of the New Egypt: namely, he can be voted out.