Today Egypt and the Arab world will commemorate the 63rd anniversary of the Nakba, the day the state of Israel was formed and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were displaced.
After Egypt’s January 25 Revolution, Israel’s strongest ally, ex-president Hosni Mubarak, was ousted and is detained, pending corruption and violence charges in the Sharm El Sheikh International Hospital.
Mubarak’s fall was seen by many as a great strategic loss for Israel and the US and has left many questions in the air regarding Egyptian-Israeli relations. Will Egypt annul the Peace Treaty with Israel? Will the Camp David Accords, signed in 1979 by former president Anwar El-Sadat, be cancelled? What if the Muslim Brotherhood, whose former leader Mahdi Akef, once said “there is nothing in our dictionary called ‘Israel’” takes over power?
Israel itself seems to be in a panic. On 29 January, only four days into the revolution, the Israeli media already began pondering post-Mubarak scenarios. In an article titled “Without Egypt, Israel will be left with no friends in Mideast,” published in the Israeli Haaretz, the author suggests that Israel look for new allies in the region.
As the revolution continued it became clear that Mubarak’s close ties with Tel Aviv was a major issue of discontent among Egyptians. He was repeatedly slammed as an “Israeli agent.” Many revolutionaries held posters with Mubarak’s face plastered on Israeli flags, while others chanted “Mubarak Mubarak, Tel Aviv is waiting for you,” a nod to the fact that his Tunisian ally, Ben Ali, fled to Saudi Arabia after being ousted. Now, they say, Mubarak can go to Tel Aviv (wink: since he’s a good friend of theirs) and surely they will protect him.
After his fall, the situation did not calm down. Many protesters were angry that Mubarak and his close confidante, Egyptian tycoon, Hussein Salem, owner of the East Mediterranean Gas Company (EMG), made a dodgy natural gas export deal with Israel, selling Egyptian gas at below its value, while millions of Egyptians went without.
When Prime Minister Essam Sharaf took over he made several steps to appease angry Egyptians and to prove to the revolutionaries that the new Egypt was no longer at Israel’s beck and call.
It started with the role Egypt played in brokering the reconciliation between the two Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah, much to the chagrin of Israel.
Then, Egypt’s Foreign Minister Nabil El-Arabi said that Egypt will open a new page with Iran and may even open an embassy in Tehran, another move that left Israel fuming.
The foreign minister will also reconsider Egypt’s gas deal with Israel.
Egypt further announced that the Rafah border crossing, which is considered a lifeline for the people of Gaza, who have been under siege since 2006, will be reopened.
None of these announcements soothed protesters, who after 30 years of Mubarak rule, want fast and effective changes in the Egyptian-Israeli relations.
Last Friday tens of thousands of Egyptians headed to Tahrir Square both to condemn attacks against Egypt's Copts and to show solidarity with the Palestinian people for the Nakba anniversary. Some headed to the Israeli embassy and threatened to march to Gaza to free Palestine. Egypt’s army responded by firing shots to disperse them.
On Saturday hundreds gathered in Tahrir Square to begin a march to the Egypt-Gaza border at Rafah, but were stopped when Egypt’s ruling military council banned bus companies chartered for the event from transporting the protestors.
How then do Egypt's post-revolution political forces view relations with Israel?
The Muslim Brotherhood, who recently announced that they intend to compete for 45 - 50 per cent of the next parliament, have released several cryptic statements about Israel.
Closely following the fall of Mubarak, Mohamed Morsi, brotherhood leader, who now heads the group’s Freedom and Justice Party, said that the group does not recognise Israel, but rather a Palestine where Muslims, Christians and Jews can live together.
In early April, the brotherhood’s Supreme Guide, Mohamed Badie announced that the Camp David Accords “have lost all its credibility,” and said they run counter to both the rulings of Islam and the interests of the nation.
In his weekly message titled the “Peace of Islam,” Badie said, "this does not mean a call for revising the Treaty nor is it a call for war, as others claim, but rather a call to offer the people the ultimate source of authority and the right to freely express their opinion.”
The group also hailed Egypt’s role in brokering the peace between the two Palestinian factions and said that it is a “step in the right direction.”
However, Hamdi Hassan, a leading Brotherhood members, and former parliamentary bloc spokesperson clarified that the MB does recognise the Camp David Accords, but with certain reservations.
“I’m officially announcing that the MB recognises the Camp David agreement and all international treaties and agreements that the previous regime signed,” says Hassan. “But they also have to respect the terms of the agreement - but they don’t. Israel violates Camp David on a systematic basis.”
Hassan points out that several Egyptian officers were shot by Israeli troops on the borders and that Israel helps the trafficking of drugs into Egypt.
“The Mubarak regime conceded many Egyptian rights and allowed the Zionist entity to spread like a cancer in our midst,” says Hassan. “But now the Egyptian revolution is helping Egypt regain its power in the region and now we have the power to stop the violations of the Zionists.”
It won’t be easy though. Israel, he says, is not happy with the peace deal between Fatah and Hamas and gave the Palestinian president an ultimatum: to choose whether to negotiate with them (Israel) or Hamas.
“This shows that a peaceful solution to the suffering of the Palestinians is the last thing on their agenda,” says Hassan.
Hassan, however refused to state the brotherhood’s vision for Palestine and the solution they foresee for the Arab-Israeli conflict.
“This is an unacceptable question,” says Hassan. “It’s like asking a dying child what they want to be when they grow up. The issue now is to protect the Palestinians, offer aid to them and help remove the siege that the old regime [Mubarak’s] kept in place in order to force the Palestinians to succumb to the Zionist entity.”
While Hassan refused to answer the question, others didn’t mince their words.
Gihan Shaaban, the media spokesperson for the leftist Popular Alliance Party says that the party is pushing for a one-state solution. They want one democratic secular nation where Muslims, Christians and Jews can live together on Palestinian land.
“This is what we dream of, but I am not yet sure how possible it is,” says Shaaban.
She adds that the group has not yet reached a consensus regarding the Camp David Accords, but she said that the peace process between Israel and Palestine leaves much to be desired.
“What peace process?” Shaaban says. “How many wars has Israel launched since Camp David and Oslo? There is no peace. I don’t want to say we want to cancel Camp David, but I believe that we should support every inch of Egyptian land.”
The party, says Shaaban, supports the opening of the Rafah crossing, the right of Palestinians to return and the Palestinian resistance movement in every way. While the party’s platform has not yet been finalised, the current draft paints more than a clear idea of the policy they will take towards Israel.
“We want to cut all diplomatic ties with Israel and stop all forms of cultural and popular normalisation.” Shaaban continues “...to cancel the Quiz agreement and stop the export of gas, cement and other products to Israel, open the Rafah border permanently and not support the siege of Gaza in anyway.”
Ziyad Eleimy, a leading member of the January 25 Youth Coalition, says that it is important that Egypt stays committed to all international treaties, including Camp David. But he said it is also important for the new government to play a role the previous regime has neglected for years.
“The role of supporting and respecting the rights of the Palestinians was completely ignored by Mubarak and his gang,” says Eleimy. “The new Egypt, however, should fight for their right to have a nation and shield them from Israeli racism.”
The old regime, he says, not only turned its back on Palestinians, but worked hard to keep the divide between the two factions.
“Is it a coincidence that within 100 days of Mubarak’s fall there was peace between Hamas and Fatah?,” asked Eleimy. “This just shows the insidious role that the previous regime was playing at keeping the trouble brewing.”
Echoing the sentiments of many revolutionaries, Eleimy insists that the gas deal between Egypt and Israel needs to be revised.
“The gas deal with Israel and other countries results in a waste of public funds due to the ridiculous prices,” says Eleimy. “Why should a poor country like Egypt sell gas at such a low price when many of its own people are in dire need of it?”
Eleimy also added that he supports the Palestinian resistance movement and shrugs off Western accusations that they are acts of terrorism.
“If an occupied person fights his occupier; that’s not terrorism,” insisted Eleimy.
He qualified this, however, by stating that he does not agree with the methods used by Hamas and insists that the resistence should be directed to military targets only and not civilians.
“I won’t call the actions of Hamas terrorism, but sometimes they make strategic mistakes by targeting the wrong people,” says Eleimy. “But I can’t call what they do terrorism; it’s still resistance.”
Eleimy echoed the suggestion made by presidential candidate, Mohamed El-Baradei, that Rafah become a free trade zone, where Palestinians can come, buy what they need and return to Gaza.
Abdel Aziz El-Husseini, one of the founders of the Nasserist Karama Party said that the relationship between Egypt and Israel, needs a whole makeover.
“What we want is to deal with them as equals, not as inferiors,” says Husseiny. “But Mubarak always behaved like we were the weaker side and succumbed to every Israeli demand. This needs to change urgently.”
Husseiny pointed out that Egypt’s foreign ministry has to make sure that the US and Israel should cease to interfere in the issue of the Rafah border crossing.
“The Rafah bordering crossing needs to be opened, just like the crossing between Egyptian and Sudanese borders are always open,” asserts Husseiny. “And these decisions should be made by Egypt only, without US interference. I mean, can Egypt tell them what to do with their border crossing with Mexico? No. It’s none of our business and this is none of theirs.”
He also points out that in November 2008 an Egyptian court ruled against gas exports to Israel, but the ruling was never heeded.
“The gas that goes to Israel, passes through Arish, but the people there don’t get any: Is that fair?” asked Husseiny.
As for the Camp David Accords, Husseiny says that he never recognised it.
Husseiny claims the accords included secret articles regarding Egypt’s internal politics.
“In Egypt, there is a connection between corruption and normalisation with Israel,” explains Husseiny. “How is it that the same people responsible for the corruption in this country are the same ones who pushed for normalisation?”
“I am completely against Camp David and most Nasserists and nationalists feel the same,” he says. “None of us recognise the legitimacy of Israel in the first place.”
That being said, though, he admits Egyptians have to deal with reality and accept that Israel is there for now. What Egypt needs to do, he says, is focus on rebuilding before staging a faceoff with Israel.
“Power protects peace and Egypt needs to be powerful,” insists Husseiny. “We need to have economic power, we need to have military power and then when we ask Israel to do something, they will have to comply.”
However, he adds, that this may take time and if Egypt is not yet capable of being military equals or economic equals, the least we can do is be political equals. He cited Turkey as an example, which has a peaceful, yet firm relationship with Israel and the US. He said that when the US invaded Iraq, Turkey refused to let them pass through their territories, unlike Arab countries, who didn’t object.
“I think Turkey deals with Israel very well,” says Husseiny. “They put pressure on Israel and pressure on Israel doesn’t mean war. There are many political steps you can take before you turn to war.”
Husseiny also echoed the idea held by others, that the best solution for the Israeli-Palestinian crisis is the creation of one secular state for all.
Emad Gad, a political scientist and a member of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, says that the one secular state solution is “old fashioned,” and no longer applicable.
“This is a solution that is rejected by the US, Israel and the international community,” says Gad. “The best solution is to create a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders.”
Gad says that the party recognises the Peace Treaty and, unlike other groups, does not want to cancel it, neither now, nor when Egypt is more powerful.
He said that Egypt should now focus on making sure that all the demands of the January 25 Revolution are met. Then if they don’t feel happy with some terms in Camp David, they can change them through negotiations with Israel.
“We recognise it, don’t want to cancel it, we respect all of Egypt’s international agreements and do not see any need for Egypt to go to any war except to protect Egyptian soil,” says Gad. “So we don’t to annul the agreement, but we also don’t want Israel to get preferential treatment.”
And Israel did get preferential treatment during the Mubarak era, says Gad.
“You see, Mubarak linked Israel and the US,” says Gad. “He [Mubarak] would follow their orders regarding Palestinians and manipulate Egypt’s policy to favour Israel and in turn, they would let him do what he wants, internally, in Egypt.”
When Mubarak fell, so did this equation, says Gad. Israel now understands that the equation no longer exists and they can no longer prance through the Middle East doing what they want. Hamas also recognised Egypt's new posture, says Gad, and they now understand that Egypt will not bow to any demand Israel makes and, therefore, removed any reservations they had regarding its role in reconciliation with Fatah.
“Mubarak was a strategic treasure for Israel and his removal was a big loss for them,” he says. “Now Egypt’s policy towards Israel will change and reflect the vision of a strong democratic country that will not accept equations to get external support for internal affairs.”