By Nael Shama
“In reading a text, one must open it out both to what went into it and to what its author excluded.” Edward Said
On May 30, Daily News Egypt printed an article in its commentaries page entitled “In Defense of Reason, Not Israel” in which commentator Amr Yossef aimed at refuting three myths about Israel that “appear to continue dominating Egyptian public opinion,” namely, that Israel works to weaken Egypt; that Israel wants to occupy Egypt; and that Israel is all-powerful.
Though prevalent among some Egyptians, the second and third myths are hardly debatable among intellectuals or in academic circles. The reasons need no long explanation. To put it in simple words, Israel does not want to occupy Egypt because neither does it have a legitimate pretext to justify such a reckless step particularly against wide international condemnations, nor does it want to open a new front as it struggles to contain its current foes (Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah) whose political and military actions have been causing enough nuisances to its leadership.
As for the third myth, Israel is certainly not all-powerful, simply because no party is, or ever was, all-powerful in international politics. In Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, the limitations of US power — the world’s only superpower in today’s world — can hardly be missed. In short, these two far-fetched hypotheses are so weak and dilapidated that their validity is discredited without the need of any external effort.
The first so-called “myth,” however, deserves further discussion. First, it is true that Israel is not interested in seeing “an Egypt that is weakened, divided, and torn by sectarian violence” because of the negative implications of such a situation on Israel’s security. But does this necessarily mean that Israel is interested in an Egypt that is politically and economically powerful? Absolutely not. Israel’s unwillingness to seeing Egypt descend into chaos does not automatically mean interest in seeing it develop, grow and prosper. Israel is interested in Egypt’s stability, not prosperity, and this attitude is born out of self-interest calculations, not altruism.
Secondly, even if the bitter heritage of the six-decade Arab-Israeli conflict is sidelined on the pretext that succumbing to “psychological” barriers is an uncivilized stance that reflects an anti-reason mindset, strategic considerations — in particular competition for regional influence — will always obstruct the development of close Egyptian-Israeli relations. Israel may not want to expand militarily, but increasing its influence in the region through political alliances, economic tools, propaganda, etc, has been on its agenda for many years.
This factor polluted Egyptian-Israeli relations even at the zenith of worldwide optimism about the prospects of a comprehensive and lasting Arab-Israeli peace. During the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) conference held in Casablanca in 1994, Shimon Peres spoke about the benefits of Israel’s regional leadership, ironically in a region that had been militarily subjugated by Israel for decades.
“Egypt led the Arabs for 40 years and brought them to the abyss, you will see the region’s economic situation improve when Israel takes the reins of leadership in the Middle East,” he preached to his Arab counterparts. The inevitability of competition for regional influence is why eminent scholar on Middle Eastern politics Fawaz Gerges predicted then that the interests of Egypt and Israel in the post-peace Middle East “are bound to clash.”
And today, as Egypt frees itself from the rigid chains that have obstructed development and imposed dictatorship and economic failure, hopes of a democratic, developed and modern Egypt have been resurrected.
Is Israel excited about this development? Absolutely not. A historical precedent can explain. In the mid-1950s, Egyptian President Gamel Abdel-Nasser told the British parliamentarian Richard Crossman, liaison in unofficial talks between Egypt and Israel at the time, that Egypt was not interested in embattling Israel and that its efforts were focused on internal development. In response, Israel’s Prime Minister Ben Gurion commented: “This is bad news, very bad news.”
History repeats itself. Israel is undoubtedly concerned as it sees the winds of change sweeping old political players and structures and changing the political order on the Nile. In the new Egypt, certainly, foreign policy will be more responsive to public opinion. Under dictators like Mubarak, the wishes of the public were trampled upon using the whips of the security apparatus and the lies of the microphone. The national interest of Egypt was forfeited to serve a corrupt regime determined to advance a father-to-son succession of power, and a handful of parasite businessmen who sucked Egyptians dry to pump more cash into their ill-gotten bank accounts. The gas deal with Israel is a vivid case in point.
This phase, to the dismay of Israel, has come to an end. Egypt’s post-revolution Foreign Minister Nabil Al-Arabi explained that Israel considered Mubarak a treasure, adding that Israel “could have gotten whatever it wanted out of him.” But with the downfall of Mubarak, he said, “the treasure is gone.” Thus, it is most likely that Egypt’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Israel will not be as lenient, submissive, and collusive as it was over the last decade. It is only against this truth that one can understand the reactions of Israel’s political leaders to recent developments in Egypt; Netanyahu’s pleas to Western leaders to rescue Mubarak during the revolution; former Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer’s tears over the loss of his faithful ally; and the hysteria of Israel’s right-wing politicians and media after the triumph of the revolution.
Thirdly, even if the myths entertained by the Egyptian public are excluded from the political calculus, the different agendas of the two countries will put them on a collision course. For example, Egypt’s support of Palestinian rights, and its irritation at Israel’s reluctance to save the faltering peace process will constitute a stumbling block to the development of close Egyptian-Israeli relations.
In the language of literature, both “text” and “subtext” must be scrutinized by the prudent literary critic. Apparently, there is hardly any problem with the text of Yossef’s article. But the subtext, which is the unspoken content that lies beneath the spoken content, needs close attention. Since nations are narrations, then — and I stick here to the lexicon of literary criticism — presenting another narrative of Egypt’s story with Israel is imperative.
Nael M. Shama, PhD, is a political researcher and writer based in Cairo. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org and twittered @nael_shama