Dear President Morsi,
I know you have a lot on your mind. It's been less than three months since you won Egypt's first democratic election for president as the Muslim Brotherhood's second-choice candidate. Activists who overthrew the old regime could yet rise against you if you convince them that you stole their revolution. Millions of hungry Egyptians are waiting for you to rebuild the economy—a job made harder because the army controls so much of it.
So relations with Israel may be at the edge of your peripheral vision. Still, I hope you'll take this Israeli's suggestion: You should do more to preserve Egyptian-Israeli peace. Rather than imply commitment to the peace treaty, express it clearly. Egypt's welfare depends on it, as do future Mideast peace efforts.
In domestic terms, you certainly did not waste the first crisis on the Israeli border. Just a month ago, the armed forces still had more power than you did. Then militants attacked a base at the eastern edge of the Sinai, killed 16 Egyptian soldiers, and crossed into Israel, where Israeli troops finished them off. Stunning the world, you used the blow to the army's prestige to dismiss the top commanders and to void the military decree limiting your authority. Afterward, the army began its crackdown on Islamic extremists in the chaotic Sinai, sending troops, and reportedly tanks and helicopters.
There was a glitch, though. The Israeli government has an unavoidable ambivalence: It wants Egypt to impose order in the Sinai, so that neither jihadists nor Palestinian militants can attack Israel from there. But to prevent war between Israel and Egypt, the 1979 peace treaty restricts the forces and weapons that Egypt can deploy in the Sinai. Changes have to be coordinated with Israel. This time, it seems, your side skipped consultations, at least at the outset.
Perhaps, as one analyst suggested to me, this was because the Egyptian generals who handled contacts with Israel for years had just lost their jobs. But any Israeli government would be nervous about the Muslim Brotherhood winning an Egyptian election, and the all more so the hawks in power in Israel today. The troop movements did not reduce that jumpiness. The Netanyahu government called Washington for help, after which, it seems, Washington phoned Cairo. Your defense minister, Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, reportedly called Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and assured him that Egypt is committed to the peace treaty. The defense consultations resumed.
Israeli officialdom now sounds deliberately calm. When I asked a defense source this week about Egyptian military moves in the Sinai, he replied, "Security dialogue between Egypt and Israel is entrenched in the peace treaty." That's true, and it evades the question of whether the treaty was temporarily ignored. A Foreign Ministry source told me, "Maybe here or there they increased their military forces or assets without consulting with us. If it happened, it was for a limited time." In other words: There was no crisis, not even a little flap. You might conclude that even this hawkish Israeli government has been reassured.
Or has it? Last week, the head of Israeli Military Intelligence, General Aviv Kochavi, presented his annual assessment to the general staff. A snippet was released for publication: "In the coming year, Israel will face a regional environment that is unstable, tense, and more Islamic" with the risk of a crisis leading unintentionally to war. Perhaps Kochavi had other countries in mind, but the neighbor of Israel that has most obviously become "more Islamic" is Egypt. This is just one hint that a basic element of Israeli military planning, peace with Egypt, isn't quite as solid as it was.
For your country's sake, you want to make it rock solid again. The peace dividend from the 1979 treaty has been huge not just for Israel but for Egypt as well. You must repair your economy, which does not need the costs of preparing for a potential conflict with Israel. Three decades of peace have brought Egypt more than $70 billion in American aid, along with tourism and foreign investment—all critical to your economic recovery today.
Besides that, you want to reassert military control in the Sinai—to deal with the extremist threat but also as a matter of national pride. If you don't want to tear up the peace treaty and return to full-scale hostility, you need to negotiate with Israel on changes in deployment—which requires Israeli confidence in your peaceful intentions.
But the implications of maintaining the peace go beyond Egypt. In your recent speech in Tehran, you emphasized your support for the Palestinians and your opposition to the Israeli occupation. You did not specify what you see as being under occupation—the West Bank and Gaza, or the territory of Israel as well. Pulled by both pragmatism and ideology, you may not be entirely sure yourself. But the pragmatist in you knows that Israel won't vanish, and the path for Palestinians to achieve self-determination is a two-state agreement. In even more self-interested terms, such an agreement is the only way to defuse Gaza's potential to drag Egypt into unwanted conflict.
Within Israel, the right's most effective argument against giving up land for peace is that regimes can fall. If the people who take power in the Palestinian state in a year or ten years aren't committed to peace, the agreement could evaporate. The counterargument is that a good agreement creates a web of interests in peace that will exist even if regimes change.
President Morsi, you have become the test case. If you let the relationship between Egypt and Israel slide into suspicion and a series of crises, if Israelis again see the southern border as the southern front, an Israeli-Palestinian agreement will become even more difficult to achieve. If you show that a post-revolutionary president from an Islamic party has chosen stability over conflict, you will help the Palestinians achieve independence.
You don't have to pretend to like Israel's leaders. You should be very careful to avoid another violation of the peace treaty. Rumors of messages and phone calls aren't enough; one of your ministers should meet one of ours, even if all they do is argue. Rather than talk vaguely about maintaining Egypt's international commitments, you should say explicitly that Egypt intends to maintain peace with Israel. Say "peace" clearly. Call it an Egyptian strategic interest, because it is.