Tel Aviv — For weeks after the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Israel held its tongue.
After Egypt’s interim military council reaffirmed Cairo’s commitment to the peace treaty with Israel, officials in Jerusalem were careful not to criticize the Egyptian government in the hope that ties with a key ally would survive the domestic turmoil.
Remarks by politicians in Cairo about rethinking the Israeli-Egyptian peace or about renegotiating a bilateral natural gas supply deal went unchallenged. And when the gas pipeline in Sinai was bombed the for second time in two months last week, National Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau, a hardliner, told reporter he would “not pass judgment” on the Egyptian security services.
But after Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Al Araby told Al Jazeera that Cairo would lift restrictions on its border crossing with Gaza — effectively ending a siege on Gaza and Hamas imposed in tandem with Israel — frustrated officials in Jerusalem started warning the press and foreign countries that the 32-year-old peace might be a stake.
This is taking ties in the “opposite of a positive direction,” said one senior official. These developments can affect Israel’s national security at a strategic level.”
And when Egypt announced that it had brokered a unity deal with Hamas and Fatah last Wednesday, Israeli cabinet minister Moshe Yaalon noted that neither Israel nor the U.S. had been consulted. “This is a phenomenon we need to examine.”
Is the Israeli-Egyptian partnership, a cornerstone of region’s geopolitical architecture, at risk by the regional changes? Is the cooperation against Hamas a thing of the past?
Analysts are likely trying to dissect just how significant the shift is. On the one hand there is a sense in Israel that Egypt wants to reassert itself as a regional leader after years in which its passive foreign policy created a vacuum that Turkey and Iran have been trying to fill.
On the other hand, many see recent moves by Egyptian politicians as an attempt to play to public sentiment that wants to see the government break with Mubarak’s policy of a strategic cooperation with Israel. Approaching elections in September have also made public officials more sensitive to public opinion.
“There’s drift,” Hillel Frisch, a political science professor at Bar Ilan, who doesn’t consider the changes to mark a major shift in orientation.
Foreign Minister Al Araby’s call for Egypt and Iran to warm ties was widely reported in Israel. Frisch pointed out Egypt’s prime minister followed up that call with a visit to Persian Gulf states (which received less attention in Israel) to do damage control with leaders who are as spooked by Iran’s rise as Israel.
Frisch said he considers the abrupt changes as a symptom of Egypt’s weakened position as it goes through the challenges of coming up with a new government after a revolution. Despite the weakened position of the government and the rising influence of public opinion in which there is widespread support for abandoning the peace treaty, Frisch doesn’t believe that the new government will opt out of Camp David.
Such a move would jeopardize relations with the U.S., which gives Egypt billions a year, and unlike oil-rich Iran, Cairo can’t afford to go it alone without U.S. assistance.
Just a few weeks ago, Israel’s view of its southern neighbor was more complimentary. Amos Gilad, a retired general who is now a top political adviser in the Defense Ministry, praised the “smart and sophisticated” moves of the Egyptian military council.
“Egypt should be supported economically,” he said. “I am very impressed by the stability of the regime.”
But after Egypt broached the idea of opening the Rafah border, Israeli officials said they were looking for clarification. Such a move would allow militants and weapons to cross the border with little problem, Israeli officials fear.
“It would allow Hamas, which is considered a terrorist organization, to go for training and bring in weaponry and change the balance in the region,” said an Israeli official. “It would be a massive boost to extremists and radicals to achieve hegemony in the region.”
Eli Shaked, a former Israeli ambassador to Egypt, said that Hamas is getting different treatment in Cairo in the post-Mubarak era. Instead of intelligence officials handling ties with the Islamic militants, the Foreign Ministry is meeting Hamas officials, boosting expectation about a normalization of ties.
Mubarak considered Hamas — a violent spinoff of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood — as a threat to Egyptian national security. The new government in Cairo, say Israeli analysts, is more concerned that it is liable to lose popularity if it is seen to be an accomplice to Israel’s blockade of Gaza.
Palestinian officials in the West Bank said that Egypt’s shift has boosted its leverage as a neutral mediator between Hamas and Fatah after years in which Cairo was seen favoring Abbas.
Israel is outraged by the idea of a unity government between Fatah and Hamas. Prime Minister Netanyahu has warned Abbas that Jerusalem believes that the Palestinian Authority must chose between peace with Israel or peace with the Islamic militants, who praised Osama Bin Laden after his killing on Sunday. Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz at the beginning of the week said he had frozen $88 in tax payments Israeli transfers to the Palestinians. Though it isn’t the first time Israel has made such a move, the decision is nonetheless a bad sign of the relations between Israel and the PA.
Israeli newspaper reports called Egypt’s announcement of the border shift a violation of a 2005 agreement on border crossings reached between Israel and the Palestinians with U.S. mediation. Since Hamas overran Gaza in 2007, Egypt has kept the border shut because the absence of PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ forces on the border is a violation of the agreement. Both the U.S. and Israel have relied on Egypt to fight smuggling and keep the border shut, say analysts.
“Whatever Egypt does on that volatile border without consulting Israel — not to mention the U.S. — is just a prescription for trouble,” said Scott Lasensky, a fellow at the U.S. Institute for Peace. “The domestic and political pressures to allow movement are clearly evident, but that does not relieve Egypt of its obligations and commitments to either Israel or the U.S.”
David Makovsky, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that elections in Egypt this year could exacerbate differences at a time of tension. He added that the lack of consultation on the Rafah decision or Palestinian unity is a disturbing shift.
“There is no short cut in greater consultation, but I am worried that this is not an Egyptian priority at a time they want to demonstrate to their own people and the region that they want to embark on a new regional course. I’m not convinced that Egypt knows what that course is.”