Why Israel fears the revolution in Egypt

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Never have so many Jews lost so much sleep over the fate of one ailing Arab dictator.

This would be the opening line to a Jackie Mason monologue if it wasn’t a pretty valid description of the way most Israelis spent their weekend. Judging by the extensive (if not borderline compulsive) manner in which the Israeli media has been covering the recent events in Egypt, one would be correct to assume that in a very strange, if not ironic, twist, Israel has come to see its own fate as tied to that of the waning regime of President Hosni Mubarak. Although Benjamin Netanyahu instructed his ministers to keep silent about the events in Egypt, a top government official present at the high-level security meeting called by the Israeli prime minister on Saturday night expressed what ordinary Israelis and policymakers alike seem to have been feeling this weekend: “We all want to believe that the steps taken by Mubarak will put a stop to the demonstrations.”...

1. The Return of the Southern Front

With the signing of the Camp David peace accords with Egypt in 1979, Israel had a major weight—militarily and economically—lifted from its back. Having secured its vast southern border through diplomacy, it was able to commit the bulk of its military to securing its increasingly volatile northern borders with Lebanon and Syria, and, perhaps just as significantly, in the process it was also able to reallocate valuable resources and manpower from the military toward economic and social ends. More than anything else, the peace with Egypt—which had been Israel’s most formidable military foe in all its wars until that point—enabled Israeli strategic planners to focus on the ever-growing Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis while constructing an elaborate defense strategy that relied upon one fundamental premise: that Israel’s southern border would remain quiet in the event of a regional war.

But this premise—long the backbone of Israel’s post-1979 strategic thinking—is now jeopardized. Without the assurances of an Egyptian regime dedicated to maintaining the Camp David accords, Israel will have to reorient its defense strategy while also finding a way to neutralize the extremely powerful Egyptian military—one that, courtesy of $1.5 billion from the United States each year, has acquired U.S.-made M1 Abrams battle tanks, Apache helicopters, and F-16 fighter jets. Not only would a hostile Egyptian regime potentially threaten Israel’s southern flank in time of war, but it could also cut off Israel’s access to the Suez Canal—a pivotal sea lane for Israeli submarines, which, in the event of war with Iran, would have to make their way to the Persian Gulf. Finally, one cannot forget that Israel’s most dedicated partner in isolating Hamas and maintaining the blockade on Gaza is the Egyptian Army. Any deterioration in this cooperation, which has successfully limited arms smuggling into Gaza, could further empower Hamas.

Taking all this into account, it’s not surprising that the reopening up of a southern front may be the closest thing to an existential threat that Israeli policymakers can foresee, with the exception of an Iranian nuclear weapon....

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