What The Protests May Mean For Middle East Peace
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.
Over the past 23 hours since President Hosni Mubarak announced that he would step down but not until he served out the last seven months of his term, the remarkable, peaceful scene in Cairo's Tahrir Square became a bloody battleground as pro-Mubarak forces battled anti-government protestors. More than 600 are reported injured, one killed. An update from NPR's Eric Westervelt in Cairo later in this hour.
But first, no matter who takes over in Egypt and no matter when, the relationship with Israel is certain to change. The peace agreement they reached in 1979 transformed the Middle East. Any significant alteration will change it again.
In a moment, Yossi Klein Halevi and Shibley Telhami on what the treaties meant over the past 32 years and what changes may mean, and we'll take your calls.
The relationship between Egypt and Israel is destined for change. What does that mean for Egypt, for Israel and for the United States? 800-989-8255. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, winter's wallop on your wallet. If the sequence of storms is driving you broke, if you're laughing all the way to the bank, email us your story: email@example.com.
But first, Israel, Egypt and the U.S. And we begin with Yossi Klein Halevi, a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and a contributing editor to The New Republic. He joins us from his home in Jerusalem.
And thanks very much for being with us tonight.
Mr. YOSSI KLEIN HALEVI (Fellow, Shalom Hartman Institute; Contributing Editor, The New Republic): Well, thanks for having me.
CONAN: You wrote an op-ed in today's New York Times titled "Israel Alone Again." And I wonder if that summarizes the way a lot of Israelis are feeling tonight.
Mr. HALEVI: Oh, when an Israeli looks out at the region, we look out at our borders, we see Iran coming closer and closer. We've got one Iranian proxy on our northern border. That's Hezbollah. We have Hamas on our southern border. Hamas is the only Sunni movement to align with Shiite Iran. And now we see the upheavals in Egypt and the threat of a Muslim Brotherhood takeover, and that is the ultimate Israeli nightmare.
CONAN: There was - interesting, in the New York Times on Monday, a senior Israeli official was anonymously quote as saying: For the United States, Egypt is the keystone of its Middle East policy. For Israel, it's the whole arch. Is that an exaggeration?
Mr. HALEVI: It isn't an exaggeration, because without Egypt, there is no credible, conventional Arab military threat to Israel. The last conventional war that Israel fought was Yom Kippur 1973, which was the combined Egyptian-Syrian attack on Israel.
Since then, all of Israel's wars have been essentially asymmetrical conflicts against terrorist groups. And that was a direct result of Egypt removing itself from the confrontation states.
CONAN: So in those asymmetrical conflicts against Hezbollah in Lebanon, against Hamas in Gaza, Israel is Goliath, and they are David. All of a sudden, that calculus begins to change.
Mr. HALEVI: Well, the truth is that that calculus was always only partial because, you know, to understand how an Israeli views this conflict, imagine having a split screen in your brain. On one side of the screen, you're Goliath against the Palestinian David. And in the other side of the screen, you're the David against the Arab and Muslim Goliath. And that calculus has always been there. It has only intensified and become more frightening in recent days.
CONAN: One of the key parts of the 1979 Camp David Accords, the agreement between Israel and Egypt, was land for peace. Israel gave back the Sinai, which it had conquered in war, and in return for peace with Israel. And it's been a cold peace, I guess - at various times, colder than others. But nevertheless, that principle, is that in danger?
Mr. HALEVI: Well, you know, it's an extraordinary phenomenon if you think about how even a cold peace managed to sustain some sense of Israeli optimism in the possibility of an ongoing land-for-peace momentum.
And now, with the threat to the Egyptian-Israeli peace, what remains of Israeli optimism is under severe strain. And if that peace treaty collapses, even the cold peace with Egypt, if that isn't sustained in some way, then the chances of replicating another land-for-peace agreement will be increasingly remote in this generation.
CONAN: Will there be political consequences? Will people in Israel look back and say: Oh, my gosh. We had a 30-year window to negotiate with -some sort of an agreement with the Palestinians without the threat of a, as you say, a credible threat of a conventional war against this country, and we squandered it.
Mr. HALEVI: Look, there's always the fear that many of us have, and that's the balance between opportunity and threat. In terms of a 30-year window, the Palestinian National Movement didn't recognize Israel's right to exist until the beginning of the Oslo process in 1993. So, in effect, we've had a 15-year window.
And even that 15-year window, you know, Israel made several offers of land for peace. Israel endorsed the Clinton proposals in December, 2000, and then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat preferred to launch a four-year war of suicide attacks.
Two years ago, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert put a detailed map on the table, offering the equivalent of over 99 percent of the territory, and that did not lead to a deal, either.
So look, mistakes have been made on both sides, but the basic issue, as far as I see it, that's holding up a deal is the question of refugee return, which for any Israeli government - left, right or center - is simply a code word for the demographic destruction of Israel.
And until there's a fundamental change on the Palestinian side, as there has been a fundamental change on the Israeli side in Israel's willingness to trade land for peace with Palestinians, the Palestinians are going to have to offer, as their part of the peace agreement, a substantial concession on refugee return.
CONAN: In this new calculation, if they're - when and if the new Egyptian government changes - and it will be less, almost certainly, less warm to the Israeli peace treaty than its predecessor - does not Israel suddenly have a new relationship with the United States, as well? You say Israel alone, except for its most important ally, the United States.
Mr. HALEVI: Well, you know, we're watching the American response to developments in Egypt very carefully, and I think that for Israel, the essential question is: Will Washington be tempted to enter into some form of relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood? Or will it - and this, of course, is Israel's position - regard the Muslim Brotherhood as, in effect, an essential part of the global jihadist movement and therefore beyond the pale?
If the administration begins to yield to the temptation to see the Muslim Brotherhood as potentially moderate rather than what the Muslim Brotherhood really is in its essence, which is a jihadist movement, then I think we're heading for another strain in the relationship. I hope that clarity will prevail in Washington.
CONAN: Let's bring another voice into the conversation: Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, and has been with us frequently on this program.
Shibley, nice to have you back with us.
Professor SHIBLEY TELHAMI (Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development, University of Maryland): Good to be with you.
CONAN: And you made a prediction in the New York Times, as well: Benjamin Netanyahu will likely be seen by future Israelis as the prime minister who lost Egypt.
Prof. TELHAMI: And I meant by that exactly the kind of question you ask, which is not so much that he lost it for the U.S., because obviously there's nothing he could have done to stop the change in Egypt. I meant exactly in historical perspective.
This is an end of an incredible era in which Israel did have an opportunity to negotiate a peace deal. Obviously, as Mr. Halevi said, you know, both sides have squandered opportunities, and both sides are going to have to deal with that.
But there's no question that from the Israeli point of view, the strategic environment that existed, particularly since the Oslo process started and certainly in the first two years of this president, who wanted to make this issue a priority for diplomacy - and when you look back at it, you know, 20 years from now, I think people that are going to look with a lot of regret.
But having said all of that, I am not as pessimistic about the relationship as has been expressed, in large part because you have to break the relationship into two.
One part of the relationship is the end of war, which is really the primary objective. Israelis never really thought, you know, back in -let's say in the 1960s or even early 1970s, they're going to have a transformed relationship, and Egypt's going to turn into an ally. What they were hoping is that Egypt would no longer have wars with Israel, take it out of that game.
That's what the Camp David accords did. I actually wrote a book on the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt, and I thought about it a lot. And most certainly, that was the aim, the strategic aim from the Israeli point of view.
Now, having said that, what Israel loses now is something really different. It is not going to lose that. It's very unlikely that Israel, that the Egyptian-Israeli treaty will be torn.
It's unlikely that the prospect of war between Israel and Egypt is going to become real, no matter what happens in Egypt. Because what we see in Egypt, frankly, is that this military institution that is in place now -that is sort of integrated into the global environment in the U.S. and coordinated across the region - is most likely going to remain a very important institution, particularly on matters related to war and peace.
And Egypt, no matter how it goes, is going to still have an interest in keeping the peace and focus more on building internally, even if it rhetorically moves away.
What will disappear is that in the past few years in particular, Egypt has become more than just a country not at war with Israel. It has become an active ally, coordinating with Israel, replacing what the -the kind of role that Turkey played and back in the - before the overthrow of the shah, the shah of Iran. And that is a huge loss, because it comes at a time when Israel does not have any major player in the region who can play that role.
CONAN: Shibley Telhami and Yossi Klein Halevi are with us. We'll get an update from Cairo in about 15 minutes. So stay with us for that. We're talking about Israel, Egypt and the U.S.
Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.
President Obama took a firmer stance against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak today. After protests in Cairo turned violent, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said change must happen now, not in September, as Mubarak proposed last night. And Gibbs added: Now means now.
We'll get an update on developments in Cairo in a few minutes from NPR's Eric Westervelt. Right now, we're looking a bit down the road. The relationship between Israel and Egypt is destined for change. What does that mean for Egypt, Israel and the U.S.? 800-989-8255. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Our guest are Yossi Klein Halevi, contributing editor at The New Republic and a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. And Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland.
And Shibley Telhami, can you imagine that any future Egyptian government would not cease the collaboration that has cut off Hamas in Gaza, that goods and equipment and all kinds of supplies are going to flow more flow more freely across that border?
Prof. TELHAMI: There's no Egyptian government, even if Mr. Mubarak actually stays in office until September. No Egyptian government can now be insensitive to where its public opinion is, and public opinion is very angry with Israel and is very angry with their government on the approach they have taken.
And they certainly sympathetic, you know, with Gaza, and they've -particularly the WikiLeaks have hurt recently, revealing what people have suspected, that in fact, you know, their government was actually playing a role in isolating Hamas, even as it was mediating.
So there's no question that public opinion - and I measure it. I do public opinion polls in Egypt. I've been doing it for a decade - is, does not see eye to eye with the government on this issue. And every government is going to have to be sensitive to that.
So I think that perhaps, even, I would say the first immediate outcome of the current Egypt, today's Egypt, meaning Egypt has changed already -we talk about what if it changes, it has changed - will be a reluctance to cooperate on isolating Hamas undoubtedly.
CONAN: And Yossi Klein Halevi, if Israel sees that, how might it respond?
Mr. HALEVI: Well, Israel's ability to respond at this point is quite limited. We saw that the siege that Israel imposed on the Hamas regime was weakened last June in the wake of the Turkish flotilla, so that the possibility, really, of further weakening Hamas without the support of Egypt is not really an option facing Israel now.
And that will have consequences in terms of how the Israeli public views the possibility of a land for peace agreement with the Palestinians because a viable Palestinian state depends on Israel being able to make a deal with a single Palestinian authority that represents a majority of the Palestinian people.
That situation has not been in place in the last years and with Hamas growing in strength and in control of Gaza, and the notion of Israel negotiating land for peace agreements with what is essentially a corrupt dictatorship run by Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank, and Israel then withdrawing from the West Bank and from East Jerusalem, opens up the risk of a Hamas takeover in areas that border the Israel population centers.
So that when the Israel public looks at the map and looks at the growing strength of Hamas and now the likely withdrawal of Egypt from the anti-Hamas arc, then I think we're looking at an even greater sense of fear in the Israeli public toward the Palestinians.
Prof. TELHAMI: You know, I think...
CONAN: Shibley, excuse me, I wanted to get a caller in on the conversation. Forgive me. This is Yanika(ph), Yanika with us from Tonasket in Washington.
YANIKA (Caller): Yeah, I think that the Israeli paranoia about Hamas is a little bit exaggerated. I have heard that the Gazan people are turning against them and that the most important thing in the Egyptian-Israeli relationship is that they not go to war but that Egypt opens the Suez Canal and breaks the blockade against Gaza, which is terribly similar to the Warsaw ghetto. That's my comment.
CONAN: All right.
Mr. HALEVI: Wow, what a comment. I don't know whether to begin with paranoia or the Warsaw ghetto. The Warsaw ghetto is simply such an outrageous and offensive analogy that I'm not going to address it.
In terms of paranoia, Hamas is an organization whose official charter calls for the destruction of Israel. Hamas has spread the old anti-Semitic lie of the protocols of the elders of Zion of an international Jewish conspiracy to take over the world.
Hamas attacked Israel for 10 years, Israel's civilian centers, with rockets, blew up our buses, our cafes. You know, the notion of paranoia against an organization that, if you're going to use Nazi analogies, then I think the Nazi analogy would be better directed toward the jihadists who want to destroy the Jewish people.
CONAN: Shibley, I'm sorry?
Prof. TELHAMI: Well, there were a couple things I wanted to say. Before I answer the question directly, you know, there is the - I think the whole projection of what is going to happen and what Israel's assessment is going to be and what the Arab assessments are going to be and what the U.S. is going to be, it's going to be a very fluid situation.
I don't think we really exactly know, but I could give - you know, I could paint scenarios that actually could go the other direction very easily.
Frankly, Israel is not the only one which is nervous, obviously. Every Arab ruler, frankly, is nervous right now in terms of what their publics might do and how it might alter the picture.
The United States at this point has to sit back to figure out what is the ramification of all this for its priorities, you know, the military presence, how we fully disentangle from Iraq. What do we do at diplomacy?
SO think everybody's going to sit back and reassess, but that doesn't mean it's all going to go downhill because I can imagine even if Egypt, this pressure on Egypt to, let's say, not be as warm with Israel as before and maybe even some voices saying off the relationship, you can imagine if there's an Arab league proposal like the Arab peace plan put back on the table, it'll be far more meaningful to Israel than it was just a month ago because it'll include Egypt, which was out of it. And they had taken it for granted, and it might actually be more attractive to the Israeli public if there's a comprehensive peace.
So I don't think it means - we don't really know. There's - obviously, the Israeli public is very insecure right now. They've taken this relationship as an anchor of the strategic picture in the region, of their own security, of their own strategy and their own effort. (Unintelligible).
And on Hamas specifically, I don't really know, you know, what they want in the end. What I do know is they are not a global jihadist movement. That has actually been proven. It doesn't mean that they'll accept Israel. That I don't know. But they're not a global jihadist movement.
They have not cooperated with al-Qaeda. They have never sent forces outside of Palestine to fight other Islamic causes. They are a nationalist religious party. The one thing I don't know about them is whether: A, will they ever accept Israel; or B, will they really stick to their effort of creating an Islamic state. And that's the opposition to them by a lot of Palestinians who reject them. It's not that they're a global jihadist.
I don't know whether they could change, but I do know that the PLO was, in the past, looked at in almost the similar way. And they obviously were integrated. You have to make peace with your enemies.
From the point of view of the Palestinians, it's very hard for me as an analyst, just looking at it from the outside, to envision that Israel and the Palestinians can make a deal in this environment, particularly with all of the assault on the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority, without some way testing whether Hamas could be brought into this or not.
And that's going to be tested soon enough. I think the key to a deal, in any case, isn't just to be a bilateral deal because Israelis are even going to be less secure now in terms of a bilateral deal that doesn't include some more comprehensive vision for the region. And they're not going to do it unless there's some kind of a broader peace in the region. That might actually be turned into an asset, not into a negative.
CONAN: We just have a minute before we have to go to our update from Cairo, but Yossi Klein Halevi, might the glass be half-full, as opposed to half-empty?
Mr. HALEVI: One wishes that the analysis we've just heard is fulfilled. I think that in Israel, we're trying to cling to whatever signs of hope, fragile signs of hope, we can find.
The bottom line, I think, for Israel as we watch events unfold in Cairo is what role will the Muslim Brotherhood play in the new Egyptian government? If the Muslim Brotherhood is contained, if the democratic forces are able to prevail, the genuine democratic forces in Egypt are able to begin constituting a new government, then I think we might see something of the Egyptian-Israeli relationship salvaged. And that, of course, is the profound hope of everyone in Israel watching it happening.
CONAN: Yossi Klein Halevi, thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate it.
Mr. HALEVI: Thank you.
CONAN: Yossi Klein Halevi, a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and, again, the author of a op-ed in The New York Times. Shibley Telhami, an Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland. As always, Shibley Telhami, thanks very much for your time too.
Prof. TELHAMI: My pleasure.
CONAN: And let's go now to Cairo. Events are moving quickly in Egypt. NPR's Eric Westervelt is among the correspondents we have there. And he's just outside Tahrir Square this evening and joins us by phone. Eric, good evening.
ERIC WESTERVELT: Good evening, Neal.
CONAN: And tell us what happened today as protests turned violent.
WESTERVELT: Well, they really - at first, protesters in Tahrir Square who, for more than a week, have been mostly peaceful in their efforts to call for an end to Hosni Mubarak's regime, they tried to respond peacefully at first and implore the sort of pro-Mubarak forces to stand down. But then it quickly got out of control.
Pro-Mubarak forces were throwing rocks, bricks. Some were holding knives and wielding pieces of metal. Some even charged into the center of the square riding camels and horses. A melee broke out and then really, Neal, for the rest of the day, they fought running street battles in and around Tahrir Square.
There have been many injuries. The health minister reports some six to 700 injuries, many of them from head wounds from people hit with rocks. I saw many people grabbing pieces of corrugated metal from construction sites and sort of using those as primitive, makeshift shields as they sort of charged forward and then would throw rocks or really whatever they could get their hands on, Neal.
CONAN: And we've also seen Molotov cocktails being thrown as well. The pro-Mubarak forces, who are they?
WESTERVELT: Well, demonstrators here accuse the government of paying people to come out and implement this violence. They - many demonstrators also think it's heavily infiltrated by plain-clothes security forces. And there certainly are signs, Neal, that this was an organized, sort of, counterattack. This wasn't some random thing. They came in from all sides, around the square, moved in carefully. Many of them were armed and were ready to use violence.
And, importantly, the Egyptian military stood by and let this happen by and large. They fired a few warning shots occasionally, a little bit of teargas. But other than that, the Egyptian military stood by and ignored, you know, entreaties from people to intervene and let the clashes take place.
CONAN: Last night, we heard a statement from the military, this after President Mubarak's speech where he said he would step down but only after he completed his term, and a speech - statement from the military saying, all right. Your message has been heard. Enough. The demonstrations are over.
WESTERVELT: That's right. And state media again tonight sort of reiterated, you know, a call for all protesters to leave the square. And I have to say at this hour, we're still hearing some gunshots or seeing some Molotov cocktails being thrown, some clashes taking place in and around the square. So my sense is it's going to be a long evening.
CONAN: We're talking with Eric Westervelt, NPR foreign correspondent, with us from just outside Tahrir Square in Cairo. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And, Eric, just to clarify, the military praised for its neutrality for not acting against the anti-government demonstrators over the past several days, again, effectively, taking no role at all today. Just being neutral, just letting this happen.
WESTERVELT: That's right. And previously, they even signaled strongly that some of the grievances by the demonstrators, you know, in their words, were legitimate. But today really marked a strong shift with the military standing by and letting this go on. And it's going to be a key question over night and then tomorrow if it continues, you know, what role with the military play? Will they allow police forces to clear the square? Will they take part in that? Have they cut some kind of deal with the Mubarak regime to, suddenly, in many ways, change their public outlook toward the protesters in Tahrir Square.
CONAN: Throughout the past week and more, we've heard descriptions of the crowd there in Cairo and elsewhere as being a spectrum of Egyptian society: men, women, children sometimes, people who are professionals, people who are workers, people who are out of work, just about everybody from all walks of life. Has that changed or has just the mood changed?
WESTERVELT: I think the mood has changed and I think the violence today, Neal, has certainly scared off some of the spectrum of the protesters across Cairo. You did see more families and a wider spectrum of people, ages and professions previously. And now, I think you've got a hardcore group of protesters that are more camping out here. And it's possible that perhaps this is what the pro-Mubarak forces wanted, that this violence will scare away anti-government demonstrators tomorrow and in coming days.
CONAN: And at that point, the leaders of the opposition movements -well, a lot of people there in the square are saying, we didn't want any parties. We don't want movements. We just want Mubarak gone. But at that point, organized parties would seem to take on a more important role.
WESTERVELT: I think you're exactly right. And in fact, Egypt's vice president tonight signaled and said, you know, there will be no negotiations with the parties until the protests stop. So the Egyptian government - there's some gunshots right there. The Egyptian government is remaining defiant, Neal. The foreign ministry put out a strongly-worded statement today and it spoke - his spokesman spoke to the media and basically said, you know, the country's denouncing violence today. They're interfering in Egypt's internal affairs and they need to mind their own business, essentially.
CONAN: And the gunshots you were describing, I know you can't necessarily see them. But in the past, have they largely been in the air, warning shots, or have they been directed at people?
WESTERVELT: In the past, they've largely been warning shots to get the crowd back. But tonight, Neal, it's harder to gauge at certain areas what's going on. You see hear clashes. You hear gunshots, military helicopters circling overhead. And given the violence that broke out in all quarters today, it's unclear what the shots are right now.
CONAN: In past nights, as police vanished from the streets, you had local groups taking up responsibility for the security of their own neighborhoods. Is that being discouraged?
WESTERVELT: I can only speak from in and around Tahrir Square, where I've been today, Neal. And I noticed that, certainly, these neighborhood watches had taken on a much more, sort of, paranoid and menacing feel about them. One guy pulled a knife on me and, you know, searched me through and through, checked my bags, had me take off my shoes and wanted to make sure I wasn't carrying anything in my boots, even though I made it clear by my ID and explaining to him, otherwise, I was a journalist. But many of checkpoints, given the situation today, there's a fear and paranoia at these locally-manned neighborhood checkpoints.
CONAN: Eric, thanks very much. And please be careful.
WESTERVELT: Thanks, Neal.
CONAN: NPR's Eric Westervelt with us from Cairo. Of course, more on this all this evening on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
Coming up, we're going to be talking about the snow that, well, struck so much of the country, the ice as well. 800-989-8255. How is it affecting your pocketbook? Email us: email@example.com.
Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.