For many Israelis following events in Cairo over the past two weeks, it has been like watching the attractive girl next door flowering into a ravishing beauty at the very moment she makes it clear that the affair is over. In truth, it has always been a one-way affair, but in the post-Mubarak era, it will be more difficult to sustain the illusion that one day Egypt might smile back.
After engaging in a fierce war along the Suez Canal in 1973, Israelis wasted little time when a peace treaty was signed before chucking their uniforms and invading the Nile Valley as tourists. The Israelis were enchanted by Cairo – a chaotic anthill of an Eastern city pulsating with life – and by the tombs of the Pharaohs in Upper Egypt. They fell in love with the unspoiled beaches of the Sinai Peninsula and with the Egyptians themselves, with whom they had fought four wars in 25 years before having been properly introduced. They found the Egyptians to be a pleasant people with a wonderful sense of humor.
The Israelis knew their feelings were not reciprocated by the Egyptians, even though the individuals they met were polite, even friendly. On a national level, though, Egyptians didn’t like Israel, and religion had nothing to do with it. In those four wars, Israel had won three times. The fourth, the Yom Kippur War, had been for Egypt at best a tie even though it restored Egypt‘s honor and permitted the ensuing peace. Apart from the wars, however, Egyptians bore responsibility for the fate of the Palestinians. President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1967 had triggered the Six Day War, in which the Palestinian territories fell to Israel. In peace negotiations a decade later, his successor, Anwar Sadat, abandoned his insistence on Israel meeting Palestinian political demands and made a separate peace for Egypt.
In the three decades that followed the peace treaty, few Egyptian tourists visited Israel. Professional groups – lawyers, doctors, academics – declined invitations to enter into reciprocal relationships with Israeli counterparts. The few writers and other intellectuals who did visit Israel were boycotted at home. President Hosni Mubarak was frequently consulted by Israeli leaders, but they traveled to Cairo. He never came to Israel except for the funeral of assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. On the other hand, Israeli enterprises such as textile factories were permitted to open in Egypt, Egypt sold natural gas to Israel, and it permitted the Israeli navy to send warships through the Suez Canal in the direction of Iran.
Monitoring the coverage of the protest movement in Tahrir Square over the past two weeks, Israelis were moved by the eloquence and gut truths voiced by demonstrators, young and old, who had grasped the moment. Anti-Israel sentiment had not been a factor in launching the uprising, but as the days passed, it became clear that it existed beneath the heaving surface of the revolution: a bearded man in the square shouting “After we make order in Cairo we will make order in Jerusalem”; a well-spoken female writer saying in passing that Mr. Mubarak had been a servant of “Israel and the United States,” in that order; a banner depicting Mr. Mubarak with a Star of David on his forehead. Israel clearly was seen by many as a bully occupying Arab land, an entity with which Egypt had entered into relations only because of American pressure. Not until the Palestinians are given their political independence will Israelis have a chance of receiving a welcome that goes beyond politeness.
Israelis do not expect the new regime that emerges in Cairo to sever the peace treaty in the near future. But in the absence of Mr. Mubarak, relations are expected to grow steadily colder, with war somewhere down the line a scenario that cannot be dismissed.
By Abraham Rabinovich, a Jerusalem-based journalist and author of The Yom Kippur War.