January 24, 2019

Watching Egypt, On Israel’s Side

It was early in the morning in June 1967, during the Six Day War, when, as a young lieutenant in the Israeli Air Force, I was low-flying over the Mediterranean, approaching the coast of northern Sinai. As a kid I read the epic Enemy Coast Ahead, by Wing Commander Guy Gibson V.C., the leader of the 1943 Dambuster raid, so imagine how excited I was.

The war ended with a smashing victory, but didn’t bring the peace with the Egyptians.  We had to fight them again in the Attrition War and again in the Yom Kippur War.

Then, in November 1977, the unbelievable happened. Still in the Air Force, I stood on the tarmac at Ben Gurion Airport among a crowd of excited dignitaries when a noise was heard. We looked up and saw an unfamiliar jetliner escorted by three Israeli fighter jets. The big plane landed, the door opened, and there was Anwar al-Sadat, the president of Egypt, our hitherto greatest enemy, coming to make peace. I knew right away that the Middle East would never be the same.

The peace that emerged, however, was disappointing. After the initial euphoria we realized that it was a cold peace, that as opposed to the mass of Israeli tourists flocking to Egypt, Egyptians were not allowed to visit Israel – or were not interested. It seemed like a marriage of convenience from the perspective of the Egyptian regime, opening the door to generous American aid. However, when it came to the intelligentsia and the common people, they didn’t bother to hide their hostility.

I had a constant, bitter reminder of that in the 1990s, every time I picked up my son from school, when I saw the plaque for his classmate Dina Bari, who was killed by an Egyptian soldier while vacationing there with family and friends.

Then, in 1994, I went with Prime Minister Rabin on his state visit to Egypt, and at night was taken by our Cairo press attaché to a café, where an intellectual he knew invited us to join his table and offered us a nargila. We chatted, friendly, until I dared ask him to explain this cold peace. His answer was strange. He pointed to the nearby Nile, saying it had been flowing for thousands of years. “What does it mean?” I queried. “It means that this is permanent,” he said calmly, “but you, Israelis, are temporary.”

Personal insights aside, we Jews are too quick to complain. As Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Sadat’s historic partner, often said, a cold peace is better than any war. I know it’s true, with one fourth of my 1966 class in the IAF flying academy being buried in military cemeteries.

To start with, the peace with Egypt has been a great strategic asset to Israel. Just imagine what a burden it would have been if in the last three decades, apart from our other tsures (troubles), we had to deploy troops and prepare for a war scenario on the Egyptian front as well.

Then, we shouldn’t forget that following their peace treaty with Israel, Egyptians stood alone, ostracized in the Arab world, until the Palestinians, and then the Jordanians, followed their example. Egypt has also played an important role in checking and balancing the Hamas in Gaza – an extension of its own great nemesis, the Muslim Brotherhood. Of course, they did it their way, not always to our liking, but still. And finally, talking about common enemies, Sunni Egypt has always been quietly but firmly standing with Israel against a nuclear Shiite Iran.

Now, with Egypt on a brink of revolution, does this mean that all these assets might go down the tube? Not so fast. After all, the Egyptians who took to the streets chanting calls for freedom don’t necessarily want chaos. When the dust settles, they might find themselves clinging to a somewhat reformed regime, in order to avoid either the Muslim Brotherhood or anarchy. My concern is that in the process, Mubarak, or whoever replaces him, will not be able to solve the real problems of his people and will choose instead to pay them with Israeli currency.

This is something that concerns many in Israel. My friends in the defense community spent the weekend at the IDF headquarters, pondering scenarios. My friends the academic experts wondered if Jordan was next (most of them think not: King Abdullah will crush any riot at once). My Palestinian friends point to the ease in which the U.S. washed its hands of Mubarak, hinting that maybe Israel will one day be dumped, too.

If only I could grab again that old Cairo nargila and inhale its apple-and-rose blend, perhaps augmented with some stronger reality-relaxing material, then maybe I could dream of two countries prospering from their friendly neighborhood: Of Israeli technological know-how married to the great working power of Egypt, moving its people from poverty to decent living standards; of northern Sinai shores becoming the heaven for tourists; of the Hamastan in Gaza – squeezed between two powerful democracies – becoming obsolete, and so on.

Yet after every good nargila comes the hangover of sobering up. If, in the past, we Israelis were complaining about the cold peace with Egypt, following the recent events we should be grateful if any kind of peace is maintained. In the meanwhile, I can’t believe I find myself agreeing with my Foreign Minister, Avigdor Liberman. I don’t mean his lunatic threat to bomb the Aswan Dam, of course, but rather his unusually correct assertion that “In the Middle East, the nerds don’t survive.”

Therefore, while only trusting our own IDF, we will continue to watch the Egyptian events as they unfold. We will never stop hoping that Sinai, one day, might become a bridge for true peace. In the meantime, let it serve as a useful buffer zone.

Uri Dromi is a columnist based in Jerusalem. Between 1992-96 he served as the spokesman of the Rabin and Peres governments.