Strains of an Arab spring
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Strains of an Arab spring

Israel must tread carefully to protect Egypt peace pact

JERUSALEM ““ Last week’s multifront Palestinian terrorist attack along the Egyptian-Israeli border highlighted two major new challenges to Israel’s national security.

First is the breakdown of Egyptian central authority in the Sinai Peninsula, which has created fertile ground for terrorism against Israel. Complicating matters further is a heightened sensitivity in post-Mubarak Egypt to Israeli retaliation, especially if it entails action in territory nominally controlled by Egypt.

News AnalysisIf not carefully managed, the twin challenges could bring the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, a cornerstone of regional stability for over three decades, into question, say Israeli analysts.

In separate interviews on Israel Radio, former generals Giora Eiland and Yisrael Ziv both argued that the top priority for Israel now is to avoid any erosion in the peace with Egypt. Nahum Barnea, senior political analyst for the daily newspaper Yediot Achronot, expanded on the theme.

“What is at stake,” Barnea wrote on Aug. 22, “is: How can Israel help the new Egyptian regime fend off the street pressure to cancel the peace treaty with Israel?”

Ever since former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster last February, the Sinai has been in a state of virtual anarchy. Any semblance of order that existed under Mubarak has been eroded. Scores of terrorists from Gaza and beyond have been able to move in the area with impunity.

Arms smuggling through the Sinai to Gaza”“always a problem”“has reached unprecedented levels. The pipeline carrying Egyptian natural gas to Israel has been sabotaged five times since February.

In order to enable the Egyptians to reassert their control, Israeli officials indicate they may be consider an amendment to the peace accords to allow a stronger Egyptian military presence in Sinai, close to the border with Israel and in the key area along the border with Gaza. A week before the terrorist attack, Israel agreed to the deployment of an additional 1,000 Egyptian troops in the sensitive area, despite treaty limitations that allow for only a few hundred lightly armed policemen to ensure that the Sinai never again becomes a staging ground for an Egyptian assault against Israel.

Israeli military analysts say that much will depend on the degree to which the Egyptian forces are willing to take on the smugglers and the terrorists.

Up until now, soldiers in the Sinai or lightly armed policemen closer to the border have been taking kickbacks to look the other way. Without a change in attitude, simply beefing up Egyptian forces will not solve the problem, Israeli analysts say. Indeed, some of the Gaza terrorists who fired on Israeli vehicles last week operated unhindered close to an Egyptian military position, they noted.

Even more worrying for Israel than the danger of having terrorists roaming the Sinai is the potential threat the new situation poses to the peace with Egypt.

In the Aug. 18 exchanges of fire with the terrorists, three Egyptian border policemen were killed. Although it is not yet clear how they died, the Egyptians were quick to blame Israel and demand an apology. The incident sparked angry demonstrations outside the Israeli embassy in Cairo, where one protester scaled the building to tear down the Israeli flag and replace it with an Egyptian one.

What makes this particularly troubling for Israel is that in the new Egypt, a product of the Arab Spring that has given greater weight to the voice of the people, the country’s new leaders will have to take into account the widespread popular animosity toward Israel.

This, the analysts say, could bring the peace treaty with Israel under review.

Still, for all the public debate on the issue in Egypt, most experts do not anticipate a new Egyptian government abrogating the peace treaty with Israel in the near future.

They point out that the two countries still share common interests ““ for example, a quiet Sinai, in which forces that also threaten Egypt are neutralized. More important, the Egyptians know that if they cancel the peace treaty with Israel, they will forfeit the huge economic and military aid package they have been receiving from the United States ever since the treaty was signed under American auspices in 1979.

A key element that already has changed, however, is Egypt’s attitude toward Hamas, which controls Gaza. Mubarak’s Egypt strongly opposed Hamas, seeing it as extremist and within the Iranian orbit.

Egypt’s new leaders are far less hostile toward both Iran and Hamas. They have used their closer ties with Hamas to create a potentially important role for themselves as mediator ““ both in matters concerning captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and in negotiating a ceasefire to end the current hostilities between Israel and Gaza.

In the wake of last week’s terrorist attack, which left eight Israelis dead, Israel moved quickly to assassinate the leaders of the Popular Resistance Committees, the group supposedly behind the attack. That led to several days of missile, rocket and mortar fire on southern Israeli towns and cities, and sporadic Israeli air raids on militia targets in Gaza. On Monday, however, things quieted down – although the rocket attacks did not stop completely – after Egypt helped to broker a halt to the hostilities.

Yoram Meital, a leading Israeli expert on Egypt at Ben-Gurion University, says the changes in Egypt have significantly altered the military equation between Israel and the Gaza militants.

For one thing, Palestinian action from Sinai puts Israel in a very tricky position, because if Israel hits back hard on Egyptian territory, it risks escalation with Egypt. Secondly, should Israel undertake a major military operation in Gaza, it is likely to encounter much firmer Egyptian censure than it did in Mubarak’s day.

JTA Wire Service

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