What could ElBaradei mean for Israel?

By Dahlia Scheindlin and Roi Maor

By some accounts, Mohammed ElBaradei is not terribly charismatic. But after living abroad for over 30 years , he returned to Egypt with fanfare last Thursday, to announce his candidacy as successor to Hosni Mubarak, who has been in power roughly just as long. Roee Ruttenberg here on +972 has suggested that ElBaradei might find himself in a Mandela role; yesterday’s New  York Times headline strengthens the impression that he is an emerging leader. Among the myriad issues Israel will be facing in Egypt, the possibility of an ElBaradei presidency is one of them.

With the situation so crazily unstable, I wouldn’t want to place bets on such a scenario. Certain aspects about his story bode well for ElBaradei. Others make the prospect of his leadership seem unlikely.

He is widely respected internationally, as the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and a Nobel Prize laureate. And despite living abroad for so long, he seems more in touch with Egypt than Mubarak.  “Tragic events of 2 Saints church symptomatic of an impotent regime unable 2 protect its people & a disintegrating society about 2 implode,” he wrote on Twitter. The date: January 1, 2011 – 9:46 am, hours after 21 people were killed in the bombing of a Coptic Christian church. Hosni Mubarak tried to lull the country with smooth talk about Egyptian unity between Muslims and Copts; ElBaradei saw the score – that’s at least one leadership quality.

Although reports said he was under house arrest on Friday, ElBaradei has emerged to join the demonstrations and call for the end of Mubarak regime. That makes him not only the most prominent leader figure to emerge as a symbol of Egypt’s protest, but the only symbol of a new leader to emerge so far from the protests spreading around the Middle East.

Other factors seem to work against him. By some accounts, he does not cut a sweeping figure. Avner Cohen, Senior Fellow at the Institute for non-Proliferation Studies of Monterey Institute of International Studies and an expert on Iran’s nuclear armament, met him about eight years ago. “What struck me first of all, was that he was very intelligent and nice, and second, that he was very, very shy and introverted – far from charismatic or extroverted,” Cohen told us by phone from Washington.

Further, having lived away for so long, can he really become a leader figure and develop a following? Cohen said he has the impression that ElBaradei has “no basis of support” back in Egypt.

But there have been precedents of leaders and dissidents living in exile, sometimes for decades, who returned to lead their countries. Yasser Arafat might be the most relevant local example – but different, having been a symbol of the Palestinian national cause. King Simeon II of Bulgaria returned after 55 years in in exile become Prime Minister in 2001 – but his leadership was short-lived. Still, leaders can emerge from the diaspora. And perhaps, in the new Middle East paradigm there will be new respect for leaders with international training, experience and knowledge – another example is Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

So imagine ElBaradei does become either the next leader, or a highly influential figure in the next government. What sort of positions can we expect to see? What are the issues his leadership might raise for Israel?

Iran, Israel and ElBaradei

During his 12 years as head of the IAEA, he ratcheted down the increasingly nutty rhetoric calling for military action against the Iranian nuclear program (following a similarly moderate tone before the Iraq war).

Good for the region – right? Not in the Israeli narrative, where Iran moderates are viewed on par with Chamberlain in Munich, 1938. Israelis and prominent Jews have already begun working to discredit his image over this issue  As Ron Kampeas of AP reported on  Monday:

Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice-president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, accused ElBaradei of covering up Iran’s true nuclear weaponization capacities while he directed the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog.

“He is a stooge of Iran, and I don’t use the term lightly,” Hoenlein said in an online recorded interview with Yeshiva World News on the Egyptian crisis. “He fronted for them, he distorted the reports.”

Meir Javedanfar, an Iran expert living in Tel Aviv, explains that Israeli policymakers have no great love for ElBaradei, seen through the prism of Israel’s nuclear concerns. During his tenure, Javedanfar pointed out in an interview with +972,  Iran proceeded apace with its nuclear program.

An Israeli Foreign Ministry official, speaking to us off the record, remembered ElBaradei as overseeing the IAEA during a period when nuclear programs advanced in North Korea as well as Iran, and even Syria.

And those are the polite comments. Behind the scenes, figures in the Israeli security establishment (and many US hawks) deeply loathe ElBaradei for what they perceive as his failures in Iran. In an era where Israeli security figures in the Defense Ministry are the main point of contact with Egypt, such disdain could be significant.

ElBaradei certainly has experience, and so far he was proven right on both Iran and Iraq (and he bears no blame for either North Korea – before his time – or Syria – where the IAEA’s powers of inspection are limited).

Still, his record worries those who saw him as insufficiently authoritative on Iraq, and too indecisive to have any effect. On Iran, he was perceived as motivated by political considerations, while the IAEA was supposed to be a neutral professional body. Yet his conciliatory attitude failed to convince Tehran to endorse transparency and confidence-building measures. This failure, in turn, strengthened the hand of the war-mongers, precisely the opposite effect of what he intended. In this view, he tried to please all, and instead, alienated allies – pleasing none.

As a result, ElBaradei’s soft-handed approach might even meet reluctance from the US, although he would appear to be a Western darling. But with Republicans and neo-cons now at the helm of Congress, if he is seen as insufficiently Iran-belligerent or a weak fig-leaf for Islamicists, American support might not be rock solid. Some in the American hawkish circles actually deeply resent him. This New York Times piece indicates some of the uncertainty in America.

Peace with Egypt

Clearly Israel’s peace treaty with Israel is one of the towering questions that has occupied much of the commentary here so far. What will become of the oldest peace treaty Israel has with a neighbor, one of just two such treaties?

ElBaradei, a pro-Western liberal moderate, should be considered the best choice by that measure. In the interest of keeping Egypt progressive and stable, it seems likely that he would want to keep the peace. But the Palestinian situation remains tense; the partial Gaza blockade that Egypt has helped enforce – and the Rafiah border – will be tough to navigate.

But Israelis hold dear the image that in the cutthroat Middle East, only tough SOBs have any real control over their countries. That will make Israelis wonder if ElBaradei, who seems too nice to be good, will actually be in control, or a puppet, at best, of the Islamicist forces in Egypt.

Islamic Brotherhood, Israel and the World: Is El-Baradei a Bridge or a Puppet?

El-Baradei has expressed willingness to work with current regime to enact deep, fundamental transformations. He has also expressed openness toward cooperation with the Muslim Brotherhood  which has, in return, openly called for him to lead negotiations with the government.

But this doesn’t sooth Israelis – it terrifies them. Avi Issacharoff writes why, in  Haaretz:

Such elections could lead to the victory of a secular candidate such as ElBaradei, but the multiplicity of secular candidates and the unity of the Muslim Brotherhood could bring the Brotherhood to power. There would be some historic justice in such an outcome in that the Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Egypt, and the country is home to the organization’s largest base of support. Such a result, however, would constitute a nightmare scenario not only for Israel, but also for the Brotherhood’s partners in the April 6 protest movement – young people, women, secular citizens.

The fact is that Egypt’s problems are mostly internal. Even if ElBaradei as leader were to enshrine a true democratic process and fundamental liberties, popular support will rely on alleviating economic distress, a formidable challenge by any measure.  It wouldn’t take much – an economic crisis, some tension with Israel – to destabilize such a nascent system and open the door to a later takeover by Islamicists, as Israel fears. Especially since ElBaradei is considered a softy.

In sum, should elBaradei play a leadership role in Egypt’s future, Israel will have three big questions about what happens next in Egypt: Where will Egypt stand on Iran; what will become of the peace treaty, and will he open to the door to an Islamicist takeover. And Israel’s assessment is not likely to be very optimistic.