Following an uprising in Cairo, Israel’s prime minister told the Knesset that he “wishes to see a free, independent and progressive Egypt,” and that “the stormy developments there may contain positive trends for progress.” The prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, spoke on Aug. 18, 1952, shortly after a young and seemingly moderate officer, Gamal Abdel Nasser, came to power.
Israeli leaders subsequently tried to secure a peace treaty with Nasser, but his rule proved neither progressive nor peace-minded. Instead, his hostility toward Israel set off two wars, the second of which, the Six-Day War of 1967, continues to affect the Middle East today.
Almost 60 years later, during another Egyptian revolution, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proclaimed to the Knesset that “the people of Israel are inspired by genuine calls for reform” and “support the forces that promote freedom, progress and peace.”
Indeed, Israelis watched with fascination as countless Egyptians demonstrated for change, and were inspired by their yearning for freedom. Israel has been proud to be the only Middle Eastern democracy, but we would rather be one of many. And we know that elected leaders are better than autocrats and dictators at serving their people and better at maintaining peace.
Nasser led his people to wars, but his successor, Anwar Sadat, also started a revolution — a revolution of peace. That breakthrough opened the path to the Camp David peace treaty between Egypt and Israel and, later, to the Israeli-Jordanian accord, as well as negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. An entire generation of Israelis grew up never knowing war with Egypt or Jordan, and with the chance for peace with the Palestinians.
Preserving that peace is a paramount interest for the peoples of Israel, Egypt and the region. Both Prime Minister Netanyahu and Egypt’s ambassador to the United States, Sameh Shoukry, have praised that peace as the cornerstone of Middle East stability. For us, stability is not a 20th-century relic. When we say stability, we mean security for our 7.5 million citizens. When we say stability, we mean peace.
We do not, however, view stability as a substitute for democracy. On the contrary, we believe that it is an essential component of the tolerant, open society we hope will flourish in Egypt. We have seen what democracy without tolerance and openness can yield — in Gaza, Lebanon and Iran.
For that reason, Israelis appreciated the Egyptian military’s statement affirming its commitment to the Camp David treaty. We were encouraged by the sight of demonstrators focused largely on reforming Egypt rather than on resuming hostilities with Israel.
But we would be irresponsible to ignore the Muslim Brotherhood, which, although a minority party in Egypt, is the best-organized and -financed opposition group. “Resistance is the only solution against the Zio-American arrogance and tyranny,” the Brotherhood’s supreme guide recently sermonized, pledging to raise “a jihadi generation that pursues death just as its enemies pursue life.”
And the threat to peace comes not only from religious extremists but also from some of the revolution’s secular voices. The Kafaya democratic movement, for example, once circulated a petition to nullify the peace treaty. A spokesman for the April 6 Youth Movement recently demanded the halting of Egyptian natural gas shipments to Israel, which would cut off 40 percent of our supply. And last week the reformist leader Ayman Nour declared that “the era of Camp David is over.”
The Middle East is surely in transition, but for Israel, some aspects of the region remain alarmingly unchanged. In Gaza, the Hamas regime — a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood — has fired more than 200 rockets and mortar shells at Israeli towns since September. In Lebanon, where Hezbollah has imposed a puppet government, nearly 50,000 missiles are still aimed at Israel.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran hailed the Egyptian revolution as a step toward creating a Middle East “without America and the Zionist regime,” and celebrated by dispatching warships to the Suez Canal. Meanwhile, Iran continues to spin out enriched uranium — “producing it steadily, constantly,” according to Yukiya Amano, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency — to achieve nuclear military capacities.
Still, in spite of persistent dangers, Israel is striving for peace in the region. We have joined with Tony Blair, the envoy of the so-called quartet of Middle East peacemakers, in proposing measures to further improve the lives of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza on issues like developing new energy and water sources, expanding exports and broadening the scope of the Palestinian police.
And as we strengthen the foundations for co-existence, we urge Palestinian leaders to rejoin us at the negotiating table. We are committed to forging a durable peace based on firm security arrangements and mutual recognition between the Jewish and Palestinian nation-states.
These are indeed historic days, and Israel looks forward to transforming what has long been seen as a cold peace between governments into a deeply rooted warm peace between peoples, a peace between democracies.
Back in 1952, Ben-Gurion welcomed a new Egyptian leadership, but his dream of a harmonious Middle East was crushed. Our hope is that the current Egyptian revolution realizes Ben-Gurion’s vision, for the benefit of Egyptians and Israelis alike. If the region is indeed on the cusp of a new era, and if that awakening proves peaceful, Israel will be the first to embrace it.
By Michael B. Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States.