Rulers in Egypt and Israel struggle for sense of direction
A New Special Relationship
Adam Shatz, LRB
On Sunday night, Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak called a cabinet meeting to argue against going to war in Gaza. The meeting lasted four hours, as these unlikely doves made the case for ‘restraint’. They were, in a sense, arguing against themselves. After the attack in Eilat last Thursday, in which eight Israelis, five of them civilians, were killed, Netanyahu and Barak had immediately blamed the Popular Resistance Committee in Gaza, an armed movement of militants from different factions. If they had any evidence of PRC involvement, they didn’t share it: the best an IDF spokeswoman interviewed on the Real News could manage was that the attackers used Kalashnikovs. The PRC denied responsibility; Hamas was even more sheepish: the last thing it needed was another Operation Cast Lead.
A more likely story was that the attacks were carried out by Islamic militants in the Sinai, where relations between Bedouins and the Egyptian government have deteriorated, and where the pipeline that carries natural gas to Israel and Jordan has been blown up five times since February (as it happens, one of the charges against Mubarak is that he sold gas to Israel at below market prices). Earlier this month, more than a thousand Egyptian troops launched a ‘pacification’ campaign in the Sinai after Islamist insurgents attacked a police station, killing five people.
But Israel insisted that Gazan militants were to blame for Eilat, and carried out air strikes in Gaza that killed at least 14 people, including two children. The usual round of rocket attacks by armed groups in Gaza (though not by Hamas) followed, and the usual calls inside Israel for more blood. War looked imminent. As some left-wing Israelis noted, it looked like just what Netanyahu needed to distract attention from – and perhaps even crush – the tent protests against his economic policies. Who would dare to demonstrate against the government – or raise inconvenient questions about the recent announcement to build 1600 new homes in occupied East Jerusalem – if the nation went to war?
Yet here were Netanyahu and Barak, pleading with their cabinet for ‘restraint’ until the early hours of Monday morning. They were joined by defence officials who pointed out that Hamas hadn’t joined in the rocket attacks but had imposed a ceasefire on other militant groups. According to Haaretz, Netanyahu and Barak argued that Israel was too isolated internationally to go to war, and that its rocket interception system wasn’t fully prepared. But the decisive argument was that the price of war in Gaza could be the peace treaty with Egypt. Relations had already been jeopardised by Israel’s killing of at least three Egyptian security officers (five, according to Egypt) during its cross-border raid in search of the attackers in Eilat. The Egyptians were furious, and grew even more so when Israel chastised them for losing control of the Sinai.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the transitional junta that rules Egypt, has stated its commitment to the treaty, but it has also made clear that it will not interpret it as deferentially as Mubarak and his intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, did. The SCAF, which has officially agreed to hand over power to a civilian government after elections later this year, also has to take into consideration something that Mubarak and Suleiman pointedly ignored: public opinion. News of Israel’s raid in the Sinai was explosive. Thousands surrounded the Israeli embassy in Cairo, many of them denouncing the peace treaty and calling for the ambassador’s expulsion. A new folk hero was born: 23-year-old Ahmed Shahat, a.k.a. the Egyptian Spiderman or Flagman, who scaled the 13 floors of the embassy building and took down the Israeli flag.
If all this had happened a year ago, Mubarak would have done his best to suppress the news of the killing of Egyptian security personnel, and Shahat would almost surely have wound up in jail. Instead, Mubarak is in prison, facing trial, and the SCAF has to respond to the demands of Shahat and his admirers. Threatening to withdraw Egypt’s ambassador in Tel Aviv, the SCAF insisted on an official apology from Israel; it received two, the second from Shimon Peres. An apology is not a revolution in Egyptian-Israeli relations, but it is a sign of a new respect, and an indication that the balance of power in this special relationship is shifting, as it has in Israel’s relations with Erdogan’s Turkey. The SCAF has shown – or, perhaps, discovered – that it has growing leverage in its relations with Israel, and that peace does not necessarily mean fealty. Field Marshal Muhammad Hussein Tantawi and his colleagues are not looking for confrontation – quite the contrary – but they clearly expect to be treated with dignity, not as clients but as partners. And they understand that Egyptians will accept nothing less.
The situation in Sinai and Egypt-Israel relations
By Issandr El Amrani, The Arabist
The events of the last week or so in Sinai have been overshadowed by the current diplomatic rift and public outrage over Israel’s shooting of at least three Egyptian border guards a few days ago. The question of security and state legitimacy in the Sinai, the attack that killed 17 Israelis in Eilat, Israel’s latest bombing campaign in Gaza (and the Palestinian rocket fire that came in response), the border incident and the future of the the Egyptian-Israel relationship has interwoven in complex ways. But there are also distinct issues worth separating to get a better understanding of the whole.
The situation in Sinai: The raid on July 29 by some 100 gunmen of the al-Arish police station was a wake-up signal to the Egyptian government about how dire the situation is in North and Central Sinai. So were media reports and calls for a “Islamic Republic of Sinai” that Salafist Jihadist organizations — most notably Takfir wal Hijra, a group calling itself after the more famous group of the 1970s but that had hitherto been a low-intensity nuisance for the authorities. The security situation in Sinai is a mixture of tribal grievances and score-settling, banditry and violent ideological activity by Jihadists. Sometimes the interaction between these is uncertain.
The military’s unleashing of Operation Eagle, aimed at breaking up violent groups, confiscating weapons and pacifying the region, is absolutely necessary. The Egyptian state has too long tolerated tribal bending of the law in Sinai, an ambiguity it used to replace legitimacy. The price it is paying is the current chaos. The question now is how to forcefully intervene (as it should, at times using force when necessary to disarm armeg groups) while repairing relations with locals. That Sami Enan, the chief of staff of the Armed Forces, is holding meetings with tribal leaders is a good first step, as is the creation of a new law for Sinai and an administrative body that will focus on its development.
For a thorough look at this complicated situation in Sinai, including the presence of Palestinians affiliated with Muhammad Dahlan’s factions and the possibility of armed groups being manipulated by regional powers, you could do no better than to read this investigation by Lina Attalah in al-Masri al-Youm.
The Eilat attack: Israel both immediately claimed that the perpetrators of the Eilat had come in from Gaza through Egypt and that Hamas were responsible for them, although Hamas denies this and Israel presented scant evidence. The Netanyahu government also used them as a diversion from protests against their economic policy, and used them to justify a new bombing campaign in Gaza that has already killed at least 15. It might very well be the case that the Eilat attackers came from Gaza into Egypt and then into Israel — but much of the coverage of the issue suggeststhis is a new phenomenon due to the situation in Sinai post-revolution. In fact, previous attacks in Israel’s south-west were probably also conducted via Sinai. So unlike Barry Rubin1 argues, this is not just “the bitter fruit of the U.S-backed downfall of the government of President Husni Mubarak in Egypt, opening the Egypt-Israel border as a new front in the war.”
Of course, that it’s not the first time is little consolation to Israelis. But it means that has relatively little to do with the post-revolutionary situation. Egypt has a long border with Israel that has been porous to human and drug trafficking for a long time. It has a limited ability to deploy military personnel and helicopters. And it has a situation with smuggling and other illegal activities in Eastern Sinai that has been exarcebated by the blockade on Gaza. In other words, the core problem is not a temporary reduction in Egyptian control of Sinai. It’s the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the pressures on neighbors created by the blockade on Gaza, and the international community’s endorsement of of it.
The bombing campaign in Gaza: This brings us the point that, although it has scant evidence of who was behind the Eilat attacks, Israel bombarded Gaza, killing 15 so far, including at least five civilians, three of them children. In retaliation, Hamas fired rockets into southern Israel. But the truth is there would have probably been more rockets were it not for Israeli concern over the public mood in Egypt. This is one of the positive outcomes of the revolution: Israel will think twice about whether antagonizing Egyptian public opinion is worth it now that Mubarak is no longer around to deflect it.
The fallout of the border shootings: The up to six (reports differ) Egyptian border guards killed by an Israeli helicopter have provided an opportunity for those Egyptians who advocate either the revision or abbrogation of the Camp David agreement a chance to put pressure on their own government. But it has also allowed the SCAF, which clearly does not want an end to Camp David (for various reason ranging from American aid to regional stability), to leverage this pressure to extract concessions from Israel, as well as the Palestinians. The last few days have seen US, Israeli and Palestinian officials rush to Cairo (US Assistant SecState for NEA Jeffrey Feltman, former Israeli Ambassador to Egypt Shalom Cohen, senior Israeli MOD official Amos Gilad, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, and more) to handle the matter. Cairo could claim to broker a truce between Israel and Hamas, even if it’s not holding up well, and got some commitment for a relaunch of prisoner exchange talks as well as inter-Palestinian talks
Most importantly, Egypt has gotten more traction and public support than ever for regaining full sovereignty over Eastern Sinai, with practically every major Egyptian columnist and politician calling for this. Even some Israelis back this publicly now. And Israeli leading commentators like Zvi Barel have stressed the seriousness of the crisis and how important it will be to the future of bilateral relations.
The future of Egypt-Israel relations: Camp David is not coming to end anytime soon, and the alarmism seen for instance in the NYT’s coverage is unjustified. But the Egyptian-Israeli crisis has shown that Israel’s behavior will have to take into account Egyptian public opinion (and the potential pressure it can bring on government) to a much greater extent than it ever had to under Hosni Mubarak. It is likely, given the dynamics of Israeli politics (where Kadima is now attacking Likud for being soft) that ultimately the Israelis will choose to push the Egyptians on this. If and when they do so, then Camp David and bilateral relations will be really threatened. This development is to be welcomed, because the failure of Oslo and wider Arab-Israeli peace efforts can largely be laid on the feet of Israel’s ability to get away, literally, with murder. Now, there is finally a price to pay that will be big enough.
For the military council now in charge, and future Egyptian governments, there has also been a lesson: you can no longer simply ignore the street on Israel, and sometimes you have to get ahead of it. Reports that Field Marshall Tantawi blocked the recall of the Egyptian Ambassador in Israel, ordered by Prime Minister Sharaf, may be true. Like any government, the current one has to manage public anger and think of consequences protestors do not have in mind. But it has also offered it an opportunity to push for certain foreign policy goals and assert itself in its near-abroad. I share the analysis of the LRB’s Adam Shatz (worth reading in full) when he writes:
‘If all this had happened a year ago, Mubarak would have done his best to suppress the news of the killing of Egyptian security personnel, and Shahat would almost surely have wound up in jail. Instead, Mubarak is in prison, facing trial, and the SCAF has to respond to the demands of Shahat and his admirers. Threatening to withdraw Egypt’s ambassador in Tel Aviv, the SCAF insisted on an official apology from Israel; it received two, the second from Shimon Peres. An apology is not a revolution in Egyptian-Israeli relations, but it is a sign of a new respect, and an indication that the balance of power in this special relationship is shifting, as it has in Israel’s relations with Erdogan’s Turkey. The SCAF has shown – or, perhaps, discovered – that it has growing leverage in its relations with Israel, and that peace does not necessarily mean fealty. Field Marshal Muhammad Hussein Tantawi and his colleagues are not looking for confrontation – quite the contrary – but they clearly expect to be treated with dignity, not as clients but as partners. And they understand that Egyptians will accept nothing less.’