The rise of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood may not be so terrible for Israel after all.
While he hasn’t come out and said it outright, Mohamed Morsi has shown some signs of being open to a change in border policy between Egypt and the Gaza Strip—at least, that’s what Hamas is hoping for. The Times of Israel reports:
In Gaza, Hamas officials say that once Morsi settles into his job, they expect him to transform the Gaza-Egypt border crossing, now open only to select passengers, into a vibrant cargo route with free trade zones.
Such a new lifeline could keep Hamas in power for years, reviving an economy battered by a border closure Israel and Morsi’s pro-Western predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, imposed after the violent Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007.
One senior Hamas official said Gaza now has the chance to become semi-independent by relying on close relations with Egypt and cutting the last ties to Israel. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was expressing a personal view.
But Morsi is in no rush to open the borders:
But for now Morsi is keeping Hamas at arm’s length, focusing on his relationship with Egypt’s powerful military and with the US, which gives Egypt $1.3 billion in annual military aid.
This speculation may be a bit premature. Morsi, after all, has a lot on his plate domestically already before turning to Gaza.
But if the Morsi administration eventually goes ahead with this plan, it would change the Egypt-Gaza-Israel relationship in a big way. Gaza could become a de facto protectorate of Egypt, a statelet closely tied to Egypt, and the remaining ties between Gaza and the West Bank would start to fray. This would leave the West Bank to negotiate with Israel on its own while Gaza charted its own path in orbit around Egypt.
Many observers assume that any agreement between Egypt and Hamas that opened Gaza to trade would pose a threat to Israel. There would certainly be problems, and it would be easier for Hamas or for more radical groups to get arms. But there’s another side to the story. Deeper economic ties between Egypt and Gaza will give Cairo much more influence over the Strip and Cairo needs reasonably smooth relations with Israel to focus on its own economic development. Egypt may not like its peace treaty with Israel but it cannot afford a war. It is particularly averse to the idea that a handful of hot headed radicals in Gaza could drag all of Egypt into an unwanted war.
Oddly, solidarity between the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas just might play into Israel’s hands. At that point, it would be looking at a de facto three state solution with two small (and mutually hostile) Palestinian statelets. Gaza wouldn’t recognize Israel but it wouldn’t be able to fight it, and putting Gaza under Egyptian tutelage would also get Israel off the hook in terms of being criticized internationally for the blockade.
Nothing is risk free in the Middle East and nothing is perfect, but if I were an Israeli political leader, I just might be pleased to see Gaza and Cairo growing closer together.