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Unrest in Egypt Casts Pall On Israel-Palestine Negotiations

Israelis and Palestinians had best wait out the wave of protests in Egypt until the new regional setup emerges before engaging in negotiations.
A member of Palestinian security forces loyal to Hamas rides in a pickup truck as he patrols the border area between Egypt and southern Gaza Strip July 1, 2013. Egyptian soldiers and members of Palestinian security forces loyal to Hamas are on alert to guard the border area after massive protests in Egypt, Hamas officials said. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa (GAZA - Tags: POLITICS) - RTX118IN

On the day the school year ended, I took my 9-year-old son to the beach. The sea was unusually rough for this otherwise warm summer. The waves were high and a red flag fluttered over the lifeguard’s booth, warning bathers to be especially careful.

“If you see a big wave, get under it,” I cautioned my son. “Let it pass over you. Don’t confront it. Don’t let it hit you, because that could be dangerous.” I never took my eyes off him for a moment in the choppy water. Whenever a huge wave threatened to roll over us and knock us down, we both dove under it and made our way through the stream of water that seethed and foamed above our heads like a raging storm.

I bring this up as an analogy as I watch all the incredible images coming in from Egypt’s cities, especially Cairo. A wave of millions of protesters is pouring into Tahrir Square again. There isn’t a historian or Middle East scholar in the world — or a politician or general, for that matter — who can say what tomorrow will bring and where Egypt is headed in the near or distant future. Who could even have imagined that just one year after the Muslim Brotherhood’s historic victory at the polls and the establishment of democracy after decades of autocratic rule, Tahrir Square would fill up again with millions of demonstrators demanding to repeat their great achievement, the toppling of the regime of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, or that they would be doing it this time with even greater force? 

Local press photographers stationed on the rooftops surrounding Tahrir Square are capturing once-in-a-lifetime images. I doubt there is anyone in the West, or in the East for that matter, who can imagine what that vast human wave looks like, sounds like, feels like as they are trying to change the very nature and character of Egypt, and, actually, that of the entire Middle East.

What does this say about us? How will this storm to end all storms impact us? What should Israel do or not do, apart from all the clichés showered on us by security experts past and future? The advice they have for us is simplistic: Israel should station its troops along its southern border with Egypt and along its northern border with Syria. It should even keep a close eye on its very long border with Jordan. After all, Israel is surrounded by enemies, as people used to say. Today, it is surrounded by menacing turmoil: Egypt is seething, Syria is bleeding and while Jordan may have its foot slammed against the brakes, it could erupt at any moment, too.

The only advice that I can give is the same advice that I gave my son on a turbulent Mediterranean beach: Keep you head down as the powerful wave approaches and wait beneath the water until it passes. Only then should you straighten up again and take a deep breath.

After years of intifada and stalemate, the United States has spent the past few months trying to renew negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians over a permanent settlement. I have already written in Al-Monitor about how US Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent jaunt to the Middle East caused everyone to realize what they should have known long ago. Everybody now knows what the real cost of a peace agreement will be, and how difficult it will be for both sides to pay it, as long as there isn't even a drop of trust between them.

By now it can be said with all honesty that, doubts and distrust between Israelis and Palestinians aside, the current upheavals in Egypt and throughout the Middle East have created a climate which makes it impossible to talk about the future. Who can even imagine what tomorrow might bring? Who can bring up the Arab League’s proposal for an exchange of territories when no one knows what the Arab world and the Arab League will look like tomorrow, if it even survives the storm?

Isn’t it time to take an honest look at the situation and to tell Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas with regret: "Friends, don’t bother John Kerry by bringing him back here. Sit quietly on that tall fence separating Israelis and Palestinians, keep a wary eye on the waves and wait." 

I assume readers that have followed my articles will say, and rightly so, that this verges on the heretical. How does this fit with my claim that Abu Mazen is not an opponent of peace, but a partner striving to reach an arrangement with Israel? I will not take that back, but it is impossible to ignore the shifting realities and remain indifferent to them. Obviously, this does not mean that Israel should speed up construction in the settlements tomorrow, grant a green light to thousands of new housing units and approve illegal outposts. Nevertheless, it is quite possible that the Middle East will undergo significant changes in the near future. That very possibility raises maintaining the status quo to the top of the current agenda.

"Maintaining the status quo" means not exploiting the moment for any rash, impetuous moves that would bring Judea and Samaria into the eye of the storm. Right now, the right thing to do is to lower our heads and wait until the Egyptian wave sweeps past. Then we can assess the damage, see what the wave washed away and how, who was swept away in the rush of water and who remains standing. Only then will it be possible to determine what direction to take in the diplomatic process. The time is right to say that this isn’t the time.

Shlomi Eldar is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. For the past two decades, he has covered the Palestinian Authority and especially the Gaza Strip for Israel’s Channels 1 and 10, reporting on the emergence of Hamas. In 2007, he was awarded the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s most important media award, for this work.