I returned a few days ago from a business visit to Jordan. My colleagues — some of them former high-level government officials — are well acquainted with Israel and Israelis. They are all educated, secular and rational people, devoid of the Arab ethos of hatred toward Israel. It is true that the Israel-Jordanian-Egyptian peace was, from the start, a peace between elites, between regimes and defense systems, between high-echelon government officials and businessmen. The peace never really trickled down to the common folk, to the Egyptian-Jordanian masses who remained consumed with hatred for Israel and the Israelis.
But now, something has also changed among the elites. Personal relations remain as good as in the past, but business positions regarding Israel are more hostile and frozen than ever. I encounter polite attentiveness but absolute refusal to consider any commercial venture with an Israeli component, and responses along the lines of, “We accepted you and you got us into trouble.”
For many years I have been involved in the nature of the relations between Israel and Jordan, and all the ups and downs involved. But now, I feel that everything has ground to a halt. Not because the good people I conversed with have changed their opinions about us, but because they are afraid of the people on the street. The classical regimes that maintained peace with Israel or supported it have disappeared or become weakened. From now on, the street will set the tone.
The Egyptian street crushed its government and caused absolute governmental anarchy. This has not yet happened in Jordan due to the country’s different demographic structure, but even there, the street forces terrify the government. And according to the street — both in Egypt and Jordan — the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is almost absolute justification for the powerful hatred of Israel and peace with Israel.
Even though the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has always bothered the Egyptian and Jordanian governments, these governments did not allow the conflict to harm their peace treaties with Israel. I remember that at one of the meetings between Prime Minister Sharon and President Mubarak, the president said that he would never “sacrifice” the Egyptian-Israeli peace on the altar of the conflict with the Palestinians.
Those days have passed. While it is true that the Egyptian masses are preoccupied now with their internal political changes, one day they will find time to return to their hatred for Israel, a hatred that assumes the guise of concern for the fate of the Palestinian nation. And when that happens, their demands for revoking the peace treaties will rise to the top of the national agenda. The weak governments may invoke the ultimate threat to force Israel to terminate its dispute with the Palestinians — which would give the Palestinians a decisive advantage in the ensuing negotiations. “Either negotiate”, the governments will say, “or we’ll accede to our public’s demand to renege on the peace agreements.” No Arab government will commit suicide for peace with Israel. Even the specter of a negative American response to the abolishment of the peace agreements is no longer as frightening as it was in the past.
Thus, Israel is likely to find itself caught between a rock and a hard place: negotiations under the combined Egyptian-Jordanian threat, or revocation of the peace treaties. There is no need to belabor the issue; the grim consequences of the loss of the treaties are patently clear everywhere you look. The Central and Southern Commands would need to be completely overhauled.
To those who are astounded at the IDF’s lukewarm response to Hamas’ fierce assault on the southern settlements: this response does not reflect “laziness” or even moderation, but the fear that a large-scale Israeli military action would stoke the fires in the Egyptian street and drag the Egyptian government to respond with reprisals against us. This is the price of Israeli fear of the “other” Egypt.
Israel failed to predict the chaotic Arab Spring. But now that it has became a fact on the ground and the street reigns, Israel must quickly remove the main source of the hatred against it: the Israel-Palestinian conflict. While serious negotiations for peace will not lead to love for Israel, it will dismantle the public pretext for demands to break off relations. Perhaps it is not too late. Renewal of the negotiations, according to the discussions in the past, may yet save the peace agreements.