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April 17, 2014

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Morsi’s opportunity to shine

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The Israeli-Hamas miniwar last week was the first test of the post-Arab awakening order in the Middle East. Hamas, by getting embroiled in a missile duel with Israel and then calling on Arab countries for support, particularly Egypt, was testing Cairo as much as Israel. And the question Hamas was posing to Egyptians was simple: Did Egypt have a democratic revolution last year to become more like Iran or more like China? In other words, is Egypt ready to sacrifice the Camp David peace, U.S. aid and economic development to support Hamas’ radical, pro-Iranian agenda or not?

The answer from Cairo was no. President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood’s party did not want to get dragged into a total breach with Israel on behalf of Hamas; instead, he threw Egypt’s weight into mediating a cease-fire. But that raises an even more intriguing question going forward — whether Morsi, having shown himself, for the moment, to prefer being more Deng Xiaoping than Ayatollah Khomeini, has any inclination to also be Anwar Sadat, that is, to use his clout to forge an Israeli-Palestinian breakthrough so that Egypt isn’t caught in this vise again.

It is impossible not to be tantalized by how much leverage Morsi could wield in the peace process, if he ever chose to engage Israel. Precisely because he represents the Muslim Brotherhood, the vanguard of Arab Islam, and precisely because he was democratically elected, if Morsi threw his weight behind an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, it would be so much more valuable to Israel than the cold peace that Sadat delivered and Hosni Mubarak maintained. Sadat offered Israelis peace with the Egyptian state. Morsi could offer Israel peace with the Egyptian people and, through them, with the Muslim world beyond.

Ironically, though, all of this would depend on Morsi not becoming a dictator like Mubarak but on him remaining a legitimately elected president, truly representing the Egyptian people. That is in doubt given Morsi’s very troubling power grab last week and the violent response from the Egyptian street. President Barack Obama has to be careful not to sell out Egyptian democracy for quiet among Israel, Egypt and Hamas. We tried that under Mubarak. It didn’t end well.

No doubt Morsi’s price for engaging with Israel would be the Arab Peace Initiative — full Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem, save for mutually agreed-upon land swaps, and some return of refugees in return for full normalized relations. If Morsi advanced such a proposal in direct talks with Israelis, he could single-handedly revive the Israeli peace camp.

Do I expect that? No more than I expect to win the lottery. The Muslim Brotherhood has long hated the Jewish state, as well as political and religious pluralism and feminism. Therefore, here’s what I do expect: more trouble between Israel and Hamas that will constantly threaten to drag in Egypt. Hamas is a shameful organization. It subordinates the interests of the Palestinian people to Iran (and earlier to Syria), which wants Hamas to do everything it can to make a two-state solution impossible because that will lock Israel into a permanent death grip on the West Bank, which will be the undoing of the Jewish democracy and will distract the world from Iran’s and Syria’s murderous behaviors.

Israel left all of Gaza in 2005, and Hamas had a choice: It could recognize Israel, have an open border and import computers, or it could continue to deny Israel’s existence, keep the border sealed and smuggle in rockets. It chose rockets over computers. With each rocket that lands near Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, another Israeli says, “How can we possibly let go of the West Bank and risk our airport being shut down?” That is just what Hamas and Iran want — a permanent, grinding, democracy-eroding, legitimacy-destroying, globally isolating Israeli occupation of the West Bank — and they are very happy to use the Palestinian people as a human sacrifice for that goal.

The best way for Israel to undercut Hamas is by empowering the secular Palestinian Authority, led by Mahmoud Abbas, in the West Bank to gain greater independence and build a thriving economy, so every Palestinian can compare which strategy works best: working with Israel or against Israel.

This Israeli government has failed to do that. It is so shortsighted. But Hamas makes it easy for Israel to get away with that by ignoring what we know from history: that whoever makes the Israeli silent majority feel morally insecure about occupation, but strategically secure in Israel, wins. After Sadat flew to Jerusalem, Israelis knew there was no way morally that they could hold onto the Sinai, and strategically, they no longer felt the need. When King Hussein of Jordan and Yasser Arafat did the same, they each got land back.

Today, nothing makes Israelis feel more strategically insecure and morally secure with occupation than Hamas’ stupid rocket attacks, even after Israel has withdrawn.

So, as you can see, the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the future of Egyptian democracy and the U.S.-Israel-Arab struggle with Iran and Syria are now all intertwined.

Smart, courageous leadership today could defuse the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, advance Egyptian democracy, and isolate the Iranian, Syrian and Hamas regimes. Weak or reckless leadership will empower all three. This is a big moment.

Thomas Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times.

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  1. Good article Mr. Friedman. I would add one major difference of opinion. Morsi is not the leader of Egypt who will be the key figure in the middle east peace and key ally of the US. There will have to be a democratic Egyptian election to oust Morsi and get that leader for the future.

    CarmineD