Egypt/Israel tensions mount

October 5th, 2011

The following opinion piece is written by journalism professor Robert Zelnick, a former ABC News foreign correspondent. He is also a Hoover Institution fellow, and author of Israeli Unilateralism: Beyond Gaza.

“Publicly, Egyptian officials failed to acknowledge the growth of serious political problems since the dramatic revolution of this past summer. But recent visitors to Egypt, and others with close contacts in the country, identify the following points of difficulty:

First, implementation of the democratic promises. In recent weeks, the military again has assumed most of the power in Egypt while elections for a new civilian government have been formally postponed until the fall — and could very well not place until next spring, if then.

Second, the Palestinian push for statehood has put Egypt in an uncomfortable diplomatic position. To stand tall in the Arab world, Egypt must appear relentlessly pro-Palestinian. But to maintain reasonable relationships with Israel and continue to merit U.S. military, economic, and political support, Egypt cannot go too far. For that reason, the exchanges of fire between Egyptian and Israeli forces and the storming of the Israeli embassies are warning signs of what could lie ahead for Egypt.

The hard line Muslim leader of Turkey, Mr. Erdogan, recently proposed an expansion of both nations’ influence, becoming, in effect, co-political leaders of a renewed Muslim world. Egypt is again shy of any such formal arrangements knowing it cannot remain estranged from the Muslim movement in this region.

The Egyptians would like to see the Israel/Palestinian dispute resolved and believe that if the right political atmosphere were established, the U.S. would move from a policy of managing the conflict to one terminating it. This does not seem to be in the offing due to the hard line taken by both Israel and the Palestinians and the lost influence of President Obama due both to past mistakes and the upcoming political year.

Finally, there is a problem of religions in Egypt. The Coptic Christians are leaving the country in droves, spurred by anti-Christian rioting. An estimated 93,000 already have departed and it would surprise few observers if the Coptics were to remain only a token population. While there is less than a token population of Jews in Egypt, new waves of anti-Semitism could spill over to Egypt’s neighbor and renewed military hostility over perhaps an incident in Gaza that could greatly escalate tensions in the region and highlight Egypt’s lack of influence.

All this may change for the better if someone — the United States, Israel, Egypt, or the Palestinians — pulls the right arrow from their quiver. In the Middle East, scholars, generals, and ordinary folks have gone broke betting on an optimistic conclusion to difficulties.

Contact Zelnick at 617-353-5007;

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