The fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt has not so much given Israel a headache as a migraine. Israeli politicians worry that about the chaos that the revolution could unleash. Worse, it could open the way for the Muslim Brotherhood to take power, leave Israel even more isolated in the region, and potentially unleash a third Palestinian intifada. The international community will have to take steps to stop Israeli panic making the situation worse, and the country best placed to take a lead in this is Germany.
The response of Israeli leaders to events was to rachet up the rhetoric, to a degree that the British foreign secretary, William Hague, thought unnecessarily “belligerent”. Yet rather than tell Israeli leaders off, the West should assuage their fears, for Israel needs to feel secure enough to rethink some of its most firmly-held beliefs.
The first thing is to understand Israel’s predicament. In Turkey, the beleaguered Jewish state has already lost one regional ally; it does not relish the prospect of losing Egypt too. That would leave only Jordan, a country that might also soon be feeling the winds of revolution. But it is not just a numbers question. The “cold peace” with Egypt was the most important strategic alliance Israel had in the Middle East. It allowed Israel to concentrate its military forces on its northern borders and in the West Bank. Israel and Egypt have also been united in fear over Iran's rise and concern over the waning of US power.
The loss of Egypt would not just be felt at a strategic level. The alliance gave Israel a peace dividend that benefitted its economy. Egyptian natural gas supplies (Israel buys 40% of its gas from its neighbour) could come under threat, as a recent pipeline explosion in the Sinai illustrated. Smuggling of arms in Gaza and migrants and drugs into Israel could also be harder to control.
The biggest fear is that an Egypt run by the Muslim Brotherhood could make common cause with Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah. In the beach bars of Tel Aviv, people now worry that conscription will be lengthened and they may have to engage Egypt’s well-quipped military.
The only way for Israel to deal with the emergent Middle Eastern reality – besides reorganising the army to prepare for a threat from Egypt – is to re-evaluate its relations either with Turkey, Syria or Palestine. Facing a threat in the north (Hezbollah), south (Egypt), over the horizon (Iran) and in Occupied Territories (Hamas) is at least one front too many for the Israeli Defence Forces, even with increased military investment.
A rapprochement with Syria would be logical but costly. The Israeli army and Foreign Ministry are known to have urged Netanyahu to move on this track in the weeks leading up to the Egyptian uprising. But President Bashir Assad seems to think Egypt's Israel policy was partly responsible for the uprising, and will not want make the same mistake. The easier option may be to restore close links with Turkey, with whom Israel has no territorial dispute. But that will necessitate a volte-face on the Gaza flotilla raid – politically very difficult for the Netanyahu government given the Turkel Commission’s backing for Israel’s actions.
The best option might therefore be to kick-start the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. To do so, European governments would need to stop lecturing the nervous Israelis, but reassure them in the hope of building up to the necessary rethink. And this is where Germany could come in.
Thanks to Germany’s unique relationship with Israel, only Angela Merkel is in a position to reach out to Israel. The first step might be to invite Prime Minister Netanyahu and senior Israeli generals to Berlin for discussions about the events in the Middle East. A German-Israeli mini-summit would go a long way to assuage Israeli concerns, especially if it ends with a statement about the importance of Middle East democracy, the need to kick-start Israeli-Palestinian talks and for Egypt to remain an agent of peace.
Behind closed doors, however, the German government should present a proposal to re-start the process of agreeing a future border between Israeli and Palestine. To sidestep the fundamental disagreements over Jerusalem, Berlin could propose a bit-by-bit approach, starting with setting the border between the West Bank and Galilee. After all, Ariel Sharon wanted to pull out of this area of few settlements during the Gaza withdrawal. The vehicle for the negotiations could be a German-chaired Demarcation Forum, building trust on less controversial territory before moving on to more contentious areas.
For every border agreement there could be a corresponding settlement freeze. The European Union could also deploy mediators backed by quick-impact assistance, much as the UN did in the run up to South Africa’s first free elections.
These are not easy steps, as the Netanyahu government is less likely to take risks if it feels peace with Egypt is under threat. Israel needs reassuring, and as it respects and listens to Germany, that reassurance should come from Berlin. For Arab freedom not to threaten Israeli security and harm longer term prospects of peace in the region, Germany should seize this opportunity from the Middle Eastern turmoil.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.