Commentary

Egypt-Israel Relations Increasingly Tenuous

Middle East In Focus

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Relations between Israel and Egypt have taken a turn for a worse since the fall of the Mubarak regime. The recent incursion into Egyptian territory by the Israel Defense Forces, which ended with the mistaken killing of several Egyptian border police officers, is further proof that the frosty-but-stable relationship may never be the same. This time, the Israeli action came as they pursued several suspects accused of planning a recent coordinated attack in Israel. The reaction from the media in both countries, as well as the broader region, has been surprisingly measured, with most of them cautioning against any radical responses from either side.

The editorial from Qatar’s Penninsula doesn’t mince words: “Relations between Egypt and Israel, which started fraying after the revolution in Cairo, have now developed serious ruptures, much to the discomfort of the Netanyahu government in Tel Aviv. It’s become a matter of great concern to Israel that a country they could rely on to ensure their security has suddenly started giving it a severe headache....Thursday’s incident unleashed a wave of anti-Israel feeling in Cairo. Protesters gathered outside the Israeli embassy following Friday prayers, waving Palestinian flags and chanting “Death to Israel.” In the future, any Israeli highhandedness will further alienate Egyptians. The cozy relationship which the Jewish state enjoyed with Cairo is a thing of the past. The new government and the Egyptian public think differently.... Israel must take note of the new realities and launch peace talks with Palestinians.”

Writing for Arab News, Linda Heard looks at the consequences of the actions for the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel: “The diplomatic flare-up between Cairo and Tel Aviv over Israel's killing of Egyptian security officers who were chasing down militants in the Sinai Peninsula may have been dampened for now, but it has served to highlight the tenuousness of the Camp David Peace Treaty in the aftermath of Egypt's popular uprising....In recent days, Egyptian presidential hopefuls and politicians have been falling over themselves to condemn the Israeli actions....Conversely, the Benjamin Netanyahu-led government has proved its eagerness to protect the status quo with a swift verbal apology delivered by Defense Minister Ehud Barak and its acceptance of a joint Israeli-Egyptian probe into the incident....It's interesting, too, that Israeli columnists have overwhelmingly criticized their own government for condemning the Egyptian military as being unable to preserve security throughout eastern Sinai.”

For Moshe Arens, the developments highlight the need for Israel “to adjust to a changing Middle East” but not necessarily in terms of becoming more flexible. On the contrary, Arens suggests in a Haaretz article that “We have little choice but to prepare for a continuation of an unpleasant situation and hope that whoever rules Egypt in the years to come will adhere to the peace treaty with Israel, and will realize that putting an end to the chaos in the Sinai is of common interest to both countries. But most important, we must realize that the facts on the ground around us are changing, and that there may yet be more changes in the wind. It is time for a reappraisal of pre-conceived ideas.... It is a time to think how we are going to assure the security of Israel's citizens in the southern part of the country from daily rocket attacks, and make sure that those living in the north and the center of the country do not share their fate.”

Others argue that rather than become more insular, Israeli politicians should adapt to the changing circumstances by becoming more flexible. For example, George Semaan opines on al Hayat: “The Arab action has started to cast its shadows over Israel, while the security repercussions of the Eilat operation on the Gaza Strip and the killing of the Egyptian soldiers with the bullets of the Israeli army on the border between the two countries might lead to political repercussions that could make the Hebrew state come face to face with a blunt strategic flaw….If Israel shows its usual arrogance and fails to adopt measures to unburden the military council in Cairo, it will risk the adoption of the demand put forward by a wide faction among the revolutionaries: to change the nature of the relations with Tel Aviv. It will consequently have to face a critical challenge, which will not be the first in the history of its relations in the region.”

Israel however, is not the only party affected from these developments. Some commentators have also directed their word of caution towards Egypt. Tariq Alhomayed, in an article for Asharq Alawsat, hints at possible Syrian involvement: “It is true that the Egyptians have the right to be angry, and to adopt stances, but why, and in whose interests, and what are the desired goals? These questions must be answered rationally. Egypt is not Gaza, nor is it Dahiya in Lebanon. Egypt is yet to recover from its wounds, and must continue to search for its way towards reconstruction and a new start, rather than to enter into a war to defend al-Assad....The issue is not one of inaction, but rather one of national interests. What Egypt needs today is for all political leaders to stand together, whether ElBaradei, Amr Mussa, or others, with a rational stance, and not to take part in settling scores that have no meaning....The Egyptians must ask themselves a long overdue question: For how long will Egypt be a plaything for the Palestinians of Iran, al-Assad, or Hassan Nasrallah? Egypt is larger than all of these, and larger than Rami Makhlouf, and of course smarter than Netanyahu and his gang!”

The editor of the Egyptian paper Daily News, Rania Al Malky is especially concerned about its consequences for the nascent Egyptian democracy: “What better pretext for prolonging the state of emergency and keeping the military in power, or worst still plotting to guarantee a privileged status for the army in the new constitution, than the looming threat of a confrontation with Egypt’s historical enemy? A divided political class can only exacerbate the potential for a dangerous diversion from the democratic path this nation has paid dearly for with the blood of its children....Both internal and external challenges threaten to hijack the achievements we have made so far. How to confront those challenges is in our hands, whether we belong to the military or are ordinary civilians, so let’s make the right choice.”

The sentiment coming from the Israeli right, expressed in the Jerusalem Post editorial, highlights what the editors perceive is bias on the part of the Egyptian government in dealing with the cross-border incident and express fear that “On the Egyptian street, news of the policemen’s’ deaths has let loose years of pent-up hatred and anger at Israel. Despite the peace between the two countries, it has been no secret that the Egyptian people, state media and television have largely remained rabidly intolerant of the Jewish state....Then there is the blatant hypocrisy of the protesters in Egypt…; [t]hey seem to care more about the lives of their security forces when they are taken accidentally by Israel than when they are purposely gunned down by other parties in Sinai….Why didn’t Egyptian security forces stop protesters from burning Israeli flags at the embassy? Perhaps Israel should also be asking for an apology.”

Of course there is also the Palestinian angle to the incident, since the Israeli action was ultimately aimed at Palestinian militants. The National editorial cautions: “Palestinians only lose with violence…. Thursday’s raid on Israel, by a Palestinian splinter group taking advantage of Egypt’s current inability to police the Sinai Peninsula, was a setback for the cause of Palestinian statehood.... [A]ttacks like this one do more harm than good to the Palestinian cause. Considering the world’s deep aversion to anything that smacks of terrorism, such bloodshed can only damage the Palestinians’ long-nurtured plan to win approval at the United Nations, in less than a month, for an independent state....If that status quo is to change to the advantage of the long-suffering Palestinians, then Hamas — and Fatah — must find a way to rein in, not to say permanently neutralize, groups which are capable, with a dozen rifles and a few small rockets, of changing the temperature of the region’s affairs any time they feel like it.”

An editorial by Jordan Times sees a more sinister explanation for the cross-border raid, with Israel playing a high stakes games to derail the Palestinian bid at the UN for statehood: “Tension is flaring up again between Israel and Gaza, after the recent attacks by unknown assailants against Israeli vehicles along the Israeli border with Sinai, which killed and wounded a number of Israelis, both military and civilians, and between Israel and Egypt….Hamas also reacted to the Israeli escalation by ordering rocket attacks against Israeli targets in southern Israel, including in the major Israeli city of Ashdod. The obvious military implications of the developing tit-for-tat aggression aside, the political implications are worse. The timing of the exchange of fire between Israelis and Palestinians, in Gaza, and between Israelis and Egyptians, in Sinai, cannot escape one….Israel should not be allowed to escape responsibility for killing Egyptian soldiers. Hamas, on the other hand, should be careful not to fall into the trap set by the parties determined to torpedo the Palestinian endeavor to gain independence. It is an old game the Palestinians should not engage in, proving that they learned the lessons of the past.”

 


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