The uprising against the Mubarak regime raises the specter of a strategic nightmare: collapse of the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. That is not the inevitable outcome – a modified version of the Mubarak government could survive and retain the "cold peace" with Israel. But if, in a worst case scenario, democratic or Islamic forces were to come to power denouncing Israel and repudiating the peace deal, that could herald the resurrection of a major military threat on Israel's southern border.
Mubarak has served as a bulwark against regional chaos and for decades has been a central pillar of American strategy against the radical forces led by Iran. Instead of democracy in Egypt, the world could end up with a two-stage revolutionary process – an initial quasi-democracy, overtaken within months by the emergence of an autocratic Islamic republic under the heel of the Muslim Brotherhood. It would be similar to what happened when the United States supported pro-democracy forces against the Shah in Iran in the 1970s, only to see the emergence of the fundamentalist Ayatollahs. Moreover, in the event of an eventual Muslim Brotherhood victory, the big regional winner would be fundamentalist Iran.
For Israel, the main strategic significance of the peace with Egypt is that it has been able to take the threat of full-scale war against its strongest foe out of the military equation. But a hostile regime change in Cairo could compel Israel to rethink its military strategy, restructure its combat forces, and, in general, build a bigger army. It could also mean that Egypt would be aiding and abetting the radical Hamas regime in neighboring Gaza, rather than, as at present, helping to contain it.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has merely reaffirmed Israel's desire to preserve regional stability. But it is safe to assume that his government would be relieved to see power remaining in the hands of Egypt's current ruling elite through a peaceful handover to Mubarak's recently appointed vice president, Omar Suleiman.
The hope is that Suleiman, the former head of Egypt's intelligence services and a major player in everything related to Egyptian-Israeli ties, would be able to continue Egypt's pro-Western alignment and its support for the peace deal with Israel, while allowing democracy in Egypt and pre-empting the rise of an Islamic republic.
However the events in Egypt play out, they will clearly have an impact on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The very notion of a threat to the peace with Egypt will almost certainly further reduce the Netanyahu government's readiness to take risks for peace. In a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Jerusalem on Monday, Netanyahu re-emphasized the importance he attaches to the security element in any peace package "in case the peace unravels."
The uprising in Egypt seems to be reinforcing both sides of the Israeli political divide in their core beliefs. The right is already saying that Israel should not make peace unless it can be assured of ironclad security arrangements, and the left maintains that if only Israel had already made peace with the Palestinians and the Arab world, then popular unrest such as the protests in Egypt would not be potentially so earth-shattering.
Either way, the events in Egypt may not be good news for those advocating Israeli-Arab peace.