If an Israeli Rip Van Winkle had gone to sleep in 1992 and woken up in 2012 to find a news report that Palestinian leader Khalid Mishal had just concluded a meeting at the Egyptian presidential palace with President Muhammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, he might wonder if a previously unknown but particularly jarring piece of apocalyptic literature had somehow found its way into the daily paper. He might go so far as to frantically turn to the weather page to see if a temperature was still listed for Tel Aviv or if the city had ceased to exist. Horror might turn quickly to puzzlement as he read more and found that the concern of his fellow citizens seemed far more focused on other matters.
What was remarkable about this week's Mishal-Morsi meeting was therefore how unremarkable it was. With so much going on in the region, it is clear that Palestine will have to wait for now. The question is for how long.
The attitude of Egypt’s first truly elected president is easy to explain. Yes, support for the Palestinian cause is hard wired into the Brotherhood’s world view. Yes, Hamas proudly models itself after Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and the “mother movement” looks upon its daughter as a wholly legitimate offspring. And yes, even by Brotherhood standards Morsi impressed most of us who met him before he assumed the presidency as unlike most other Brotherhood leaders who generally come across as soft spoken and polite. Morsi was prickly and particularly unanxious to please; during his presidential campaign, most Egyptians were less impressed by the nature of his rhetoric than by his volume.
But the Brotherhood’s priorities are clear, and Morsi is a loyal Brotherhood member. The priority now is governing—and that means wrestling with the military and the judiciary, managing the economy, steering the transition process. It does not mean picking fights with Israel or the United States. The movement has managed carefully to find out what Western interlocutors needed to hear and then say the words it was asked—that it would honor Egypt’s international obligations and make no unilateral changes in the peace treaty with Israel.
So when Mishal showed up on Morsi’s doorstep, he was greeted with pleasantries but not with any policy sharply different from that which came before. Egypt still favors Hamas-Fatah reconciliation; its relationship with Israel is a bilateral matter; security in Sinai is a major Egyptian concern. There are differences in emphasis to be sure: the Brotherhood is probably more sincere about its push for reconciliation and more unhappy about the continued sanctions on Gaza. But it is no hurry in either area nor is it clear it would be able to force any changes if it were.
And Mishal seemed to follow Morsi’s lead by bowing to the inevitable and accepting that the Palestinian cause will have to wait. There are strong signs of frustration in the Hamas camp—its powerful friend in Cairo seems distracted by other concerns for now. But what is the alternative? Hamas was formed in the 1980s dedicated to ensuring that Palestinians would be able to act on their own and seize control of their own destinies. But it now has to wait with surprising patience for the rising Islamist tide in Egypt and elsewhere to lift their boat.
From an Israeli perspective, the result is a welcome respite. The question is how to use the calm strangely provided by the Islamist rise in North Africa.
One alternative would be to seize the opportunity to allow a Palestinian reconciliation process to move forward and thus for a negotiating partner to re-emerge. Perhaps at the same time, the Brotherhood could be called on its desire to renegotiate the peace treaty. A stronger Egyptian security presence in Sinai, for instance, might serve Israel’s interest and allow the Brotherhood to claim a propaganda victory—and in the process entrap the movement into legitimating a treaty relationship it rejected a generation ago.
A second Israeli alternative is to use the calm to allow the annexation of the West Bank to entrench itself more deeply, seek assurances only from the United States about what Egyptian policy will be in the long term, and hope that the decay of the Palestinian national movement is permanent.
For now the first alternative seems bizarrely risky; the second has a very strong element of inertia behind it. There is little doubt, therefore, what choice Israel will make.
But should our Israeli Rip Van Winkle fall back asleep for another twenty years, it is likely that when he would awake only to be peppered with questions about why the first path was not even considered.