While anti-Israeli attitudes are not uncommon in Egypt, they are becoming more virulent after the revolution so much so that 54 percent of Egyptians prefer annulling the peace treaty with Israel, according to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center.
The point of interest here is not to morally judge these attitudes, but to examine whether or not their underlying assumptions are logically justified. Three myths about Israel appear to continue dominating Egyptian public opinion:
1. Israel works to weaken Egypt
Common among conspiracy theorists in Egypt is the notion that Israel wants an Egypt that is weakened, divided, and torn by sectarian violence. Deputy Prime Minister Yehia El-Gamal stands out in expressing this notion while in office, though a considerable number of intellectuals and former high-level officials do not hide their belief in it. Typifying this view is the editor of the state-owned daily Al-Ahram who argued that Israel supports the counter-revolution forces in Egypt, citing the rumor that Israeli former chief of military intelligence confirmed his success in sowing seeds of division within Egyptian society.
In fact, a stable Egypt is in Israel’s interest. A divided Egypt might turn into another Iran, where organized Islamists took over a shattered state after a democracy-seeking uprising. Alternatively, it might turn into another Lebanon, where state weakness allows actors like Hezbollah to attack Israel at will. Would Israel be interested in creating a similar situation in which Jihadists join Hamas and operate from Egypt? Of course not.
At best, a chaotic Egypt might turn into a Mexico (or a Pakistan?) where another weak state fails to stop cross-border illegal immigration, drug and weapons trafficking. Thousands of African illegal immigrants enter Israeli territory from Sinai each year, despite measures taken by Egyptian authorities. Skyrocketing numbers of African infiltrators, drugs, let alone explosives, would reach Israel in case the Egyptian government loses control, or is domestically too busy to control borders.
None of these scenarios are good for Israel, and therefore it would certainly be interested not in undermining Egypt, but rather in an in-control, stable government in Cairo to keep the peace, and maintain order on the southern border.
2. Israel wants to occupy Egypt
The conventional view that Israel plans to occupy Egypt or re-occupy Sinai is part of a broader myth that Israel’s long-term strategic objective, out of Jewish religious beliefs, is to rule from the Nile to the Euphrates. Alleged “evidence” maintains that over the Knesset’s entrance hangs a map asserting that “the Land of Israel from the Nile to the Euphrates,” and that the Israeli flag’s two horizontal blue lines represent the Nile and the Euphrates rivers. Yet the truth is that there is no such a map in the Knesset, and the lines in Israel’s flag are derived from the design of the traditional Jewish prayer shawl.
The “Greater Israel” claim is as true as the contention that Muslims plan to establish a world-ruling Islamic caliphate. Some ultra-extremists might want to, but the vast majority does not even think of it. First, it would take a fairly insane Israeli leadership to bear the massive military and economic burden of invading a country of Egypt’s scale. Note that occupational experiences have exhausted Israel in areas as small as the Gaza Strip, southern Lebanon, and even the West Bank. Second, paradoxically, this claim contradicts another generally accepted view by the Egyptian public asserting that Israel is militarily superior and enjoys full, unconditional US support. Why, if this really is the case, has Israel not attempted an invasion? The answer is simple: Israel is satisfied with the current status-quo — in which, it perceives, Israel is the one deterring its neighbors and not vice versa — and is not interested in a territorial expansion that would go far beyond its capabilities.
3. Israel is all-powerful
Most Egyptians apparently believe that the premises of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, displayed in an Egyptian TV series titled “A Horseman without a Horse” in 2002, are true. Within this framework, obviously inflated notions — such as that Israel exploited agricultural cooperation with Egypt to either cultivate cancer-causing products in Egyptian soil or export these products to Egypt, and that the Mossad stood behind the December 2010 fatal shark attacks to hit tourism in Egypt’s Red Sea resorts — are easily accepted. Notwithstanding that such allegations have no factual or logical grounds, no one stops to ask why should an Israel facing serious security challenges (Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah, etc.) busy itself with that kind of stuff.
On a larger scale, Israel, or the Jewish people (as people hardly distinguish between Jews and Israelis), is viewed as a mighty force that rules the world through Jewish communities. It follows that any Israeli (or Jewish) economic or cultural activity in Egypt is seen as part of a “grand plan” to penetrate the society and gradually pervade all walks of life. While the Israel lobby in the US and elsewhere is truly powerful, the claim that the Jewish state controls the world provides, unfortunately, a tool to cover up one’s own failures than a realistic proof.
That these misconceptions are shared by a large part of the Egyptian public, which in a representative democracy will significantly influence the foreign policy agenda, is disappointing. That is because the revolution against the old regime has not yet removed old myths which deny the public opinion credible and informed judgments, regardless of whether a democratic Egypt would see in Israel a friend or a foe.
Amr Yossef is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the American University in Cairo