This is just great. Mohammed El Baradei, the former International Atomic Energy Agency chief who is running for president of Egypt, just promised to declare war on Israel if Israel attacks the Hamas-controlled Gaza strip. So dramatic a change in Egypt’s declared policy on the Palestinian territories would have grave consequences for the whole U.S. position in the Middle East — to make no mention of Israel’s security.
It could be that El Baradei — who already demonstrated, while dealing with the Iran issue at the IAEA, that he has no capacity whatever for strategic analysis — made the comment off the cuff. But, regardless, the comment must be taken at face value, because he’s obviously playing to public opinion in Egypt. And we have already seen other signs that Egyptian public opinion is moving further away than ever from the 30-year peace agreement with Israel. Until now, Egypt has been a partner (however feckless) with the U.S. and Israel in the “peace process.” By keeping the border crossing from Gaza into Egypt closed, Egypt has helped Israel to maintain both pressure on Hamas and its negotiating posture, which is to resist major changes in the status quo except through negotiated agreements. Egypt has helped Israel demonstrate to Hamas that there is little return on investment from attacking Israeli civilians and much to lose — one of the reasons why the last few years have been relatively quiet on the Gaza front.
What El Baradei is now proposing as the new declaratory policy of the Egyptian government (even if they don’t act on it) could fundamentally change Egypt’s role in the region and dramatically increase tensions in an already brittle situation. The only reason Israel would attack Gaza is if Hamas attacks Israeli civilians in large numbers, as occurred before Operation Cast Lead at the end of 2008. By adopting the stance advocated by El Baradei, Egypt would in essence be abandoning the Camp David Accords in favor of a hostile posture primed for offense. It’s not just that such a declaration creates a huge incentive for Hamas to attack Israeli civilians where Egypt’s policy had previously been to discourage such attacks. Strategically speaking, Egypt would be embracing Hamas as the tip of its spear, turned now against Israel. Best of all (from the point of view of a Hamas terrorist), Egypt would be giving Hamas the ability to trigger a state of war between Egypt and Israel.
Violent crises such as what we see in Libya have major consequences, but changes in declaratory policy can be just as devastating. The posture that El Baradei promises to assume if elected would be highly destabilizing to the balance of power in the Middle East, and threatens to tilt the ground under the U.S. position there. The Obama administration should reach out to the Egyptian military and make it clear to them that threatening to declare war on Israel in case of conflict with Gaza is incompatible with Egypt’s obligations under the Camp David Accords, is deeply damaging to the vital U.S. interest in maintaining peace and stability, and will have unavoidably painful consequences for everybody involved — including them. Maybe someone in Egypt’s military can prevail on El Baradei to think a little more before the next time he opens his mouth.