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Opinion

Revolution in Egypt should prompt peace talks between Syria and Israel

Political transition in Egypt is generating substantial risks – but also golden opportunities. The Obama administration should take advantage of Israel's and Syria's newfound strategic vulnerability to push for a peace deal.

By Bilal Y. Saab / February 14, 2011



College Park, Md.

The resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the ensuing political transition in Cairo has created a wave of uncertainty over the strategic politics of the Middle East, carrying both risks and opportunities for US interests and allies in the region. One potential and less-than-obvious opportunity is to relaunch peace talks between Syria and Israel.

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Admittedly, most American policymakers are focused squarely on the risks. Many analysts are trying to gauge the likelihood that a new government in Cairo, responding to popular demands, could decide to cancel its peace treaty with Israel.

It’s an understandable concern, but the evidence suggests that post-Mubarak Egypt will remain a peace partner to Israel. The Egyptian military has issued a statement suggesting that Egypt will respect all international treaties it has signed. Meanwhile, alarmist commentary that suggests that the Muslim Brotherhood could “take over” the country and terminate the peace treaty with Israel is baseless and sensationalist. The Muslim Brotherhood is likely to be a force in post-Mubarak Egypt, but the movement will neither monopolize nor dominate national policy and political opinion because its support base remains relatively small, and its ability to expand is limited.

Yet this very alarmism, in addition to internal threat perceptions in Syria, could revitalize the Syrian-Israeli peace track.

Syria and Israel have not been able to reach a peace agreement over the years in large part because neither country has felt a sense of urgency for doing so. While peace was and continues to be desirable for both sides, the continuation of the status quo was not viewed as costly or intolerable – until now perhaps.

A needed shock

In the past, both countries preferred to kick the can down the road until conditions changed and became ripe for peace. The consensus among analysts and policymakers in Washington was that for Syrian-Israeli peace to be achieved, a major shock to the external or internal environments in which both countries operate would have to take place in order to break the logjam and alter the strategic calculus of both sides.

The success of the Egyptian uprising represents precisely that kind of strategic driver that could reshuffle the deck of Syrian-Israeli relations and move their peace process forward. Two things explain this potential development: First, Egypt’s uncertain political future has made Israel nervous about its external security environment.

Jerusalem's perspective

Perceptions matter greatly in international relations. Even though post-Mubarak Egypt is likely to preserve its peace treaty with Israel, Israel’s worldview and perception of external military threats may have already changed and taken a more pessimistic turn. Consider Jerusalem’s perspective: Turkish-Israeli relations are uncertain at best, Iran seems determined to acquire nuclear weapons, the Palestinian-Israeli peace process is dead, and Hezbollah’s political and military power is at an all-time high. Add to that the serious concern over Egypt’s political direction and you have a worried leadership in Israel. To balance against perceived security threats, reduce strategic uncertainty, and ameliorate its deteriorating external environment, Israel may have fresh incentive to reach out to Syria and cooperate on a peace deal.

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