Egypt-Israel Relations Cool But Will Endure

Despite mounting tension, a resumption of hostilities between Egypt and Israel is unlikely.

Egyptians protest against Israel in Cairo, May 13, 2011
Egyptians protest against Israel in Cairo, May 13, 2011 (Mosa’ab Elshamy)

Tension between Egypt and Israel mounted in recent weeks as young revolutionaries in Cairo, apparently freed from a military regime which fostered amicable ties with the Jewish state, demanded retribution when several Egyptian security personnel were killed near the border with Gaza. Relations between the two neighbors have cooled since longtime president Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign this February. A resumption of hostilities after more than thirty years of peace seems highly unlikely though.

The unrest began exactly a week ago when seven Israeli civilians and one soldier were killed in a coordinated terrorist strike against southern Israel. Many more were wounded on a bus in the tourist resort of Eilat. The attackers had presumably tunneled from Gaza to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula where they set up firing positions. When they fled, Israeli troops pursued them. What happened next varies with the account. In the process of killing the Palestinian militants, an Israeli helicopter or plane killed between three and six Egyptian soldiers or police. And Egyptians did not like that one bit.

Egypt’s government lodged a formal protest with Israel over the killings, demanding an investigation. It said that it would recall its ambassador from Israel unless it received an apology. The next day, Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak apologized and promised an investigation along with a joint inquiry with Egypt into the deaths of the soldiers. Shimon Peres, Israel’s president, also expressed regret. Words were not enough for Egypt’s youth however. Thousands of protesters gathered outside the Israeli embassy in Cairo, calling for the expulsion of the envoy.

The Jerusalem Post has blamed Egypt for not securing the Sinai, claiming that asking Israel to apologize for accidentally killing Egyptian soldiers in the way of terrorists is unfair. After all, the natural gas pipeline that runs from the Sinai to Israel and Jordan has been attacked by unidentified militants five times since the start of the Egyptian revolution. The newspaper has pointed out that the terrorists, which Israel insists came from Gaza, could have come through the smuggling tunnels that connect the isolated Palestinian strip to Egypt and “must have had logistic support from one or more extremist organizations active in Sinai.”

They had to obtain vehicles, food and water as well as to set up observation points on the road to Eilat which they intended to attack.

Nevertheless, Egyptians who might otherwise oppose their military interim government were quick to agree with it when it blamed Israel entirely for the fatalities on Egypt’s side.

It is natural for them to react as such, not only because as nationalists, they mourn Egyptian deaths more than those of foreigners, but also because Egyptian politicians fell over themselves to condemn the killings as murders.

Amr Moussa, former head of the Arab League and a presidential frontrunner, was one of the first to speak out after the incident. “The blood of martyrs shed while performing their duties will not go in vain,” he commented.

Israel must realize that the day when Egypt’s sons are killed without an appropriate and strong reaction are over.

The Freedom and Justice Party, founded by the Muslim Brotherhood in the wake of the revolution, described the killings as nothing short of a “Zionist assault against Egyptian soldiers.” A joint statement released by thirteen different political parties this weekend characterized the episode as “an example of Israel’s arrogance and racism supported by America.”

After Barak and Peres had both expressed their sympathies, a high-ranking member of the National Association for Change, chaired by Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, called their apologies “inappropriate and insufficient” before suggesting that the Camp David Accords, which ended several decades of conflict between Egypt and Israel, should be amended or scrapped. The deputy head of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood said much the same.

Given these reactions, it’s little surprise that thousands of Egyptians found their way to the Israeli embassy in Cairo last week. Others demonstrated outside the home of the ambassador which was surrounded by Egyptian security forces. Young Egyptians also hacked Israeli websites, including that of the prime minister.

In these times of tension, Israel’s government has acted pragmatically. While rockets from Gaza struck Israeli targets and Israeli airstrikes pounded Gaza, the cabinet voted against a repetition of the horrendous assault on Gaza of late 2008. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and defense minister Barak both argued that now was not the time for an all out war on the territory. Among other considerations was the fear of deepening resentment among ordinary Egyptians.

Was the killing an accident? Most likely. Israel has no reason to antagonize Egypt. President Peres felt the need to express regret for the incident after the defense minister had already done so, saying that “the peace with Egypt is strategic; both we and the Egyptians have a supreme interest in preventing terrorism from running amok.” The Netanyahu government confirmed as much in its cabinet decision. Moreover, as Linda Heard points out in Arab News, the contrast between the swift apology to Egypt and the curt nod to Turkey after Israel’s killing of nine activists on the Mavi Marmara flotilla last year is telling. Israeli has a vital interest in maintaining its “friendship” with Egypt, however precarious.

Try telling that to angry Egyptian youth. The young revolutionaries hold significant power in Egypt at the moment. If enough of them demand some form of conflict with Israel, it is possible that a newly-elected civilian government will give in. Recent opinion polls imply that a majority of Egyptians favor rescinding the three decade-old peace treaty with Israel. That doesn’t mean they want war though and the military is unlikely to push for it. Since it will probably retain considerable authority after parliamentary and presidential elections this autumn, whatever some overzealous young people are calling for, an armed confrontation seems far from imminent — especially as the military has little incentive to give up the $2 billion in yearly aid it receives from the United States.

Although the young remain riled and future accidents or aggression could lead to attacks on the Israeli embassy or even the storming of its border with Egypt, it remains highly improbable that both nations would enter into a state of war any time soon.

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