Tel Aviv – For decades, Israel’s border with Egypt has been calm, even sleepy. Civilians regularly drive the military patrol road alongside a rusted barbed-wire fence barely standing in the sand dunes, perhaps the best evidence of a peaceful border.
But amid the fallout from a brazen attack by Palestinians along the border that left eight Israelis dead last week, Israeli analysts see the area as a growing threat and are wondering whether Cairo is capable of restoring the calm that existed.
More broadly, many worry that the incident has confirmed that the prospects for an unraveling of the decades-old peace treaty between Israel and Egypt have increased since the downfall of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
In the first hours after the attack, Israeli officials claimed that Egypt’s weak security in Sinai allowed Palestinian terrorists to leave Gaza and use Sinai as a base to infiltrate back into Israel through the porous border. But that was like pouring oil on the fire, and an angry Egypt – with three of its own soldiers dead – contemplated pulling its ambassador from Tel Aviv. A dangerous downgrade was averted only with the intervention of Western mediation.
What to make of the Egyptian flip-flop? Egypt’s interim military leadership is now seen caught between Egypt’s commitments to the 1979 peace treaty and a need to be sensitive to public opinion, which demands the new Egyptian government distinguish itself from Mubarak – a close ally of Israel.
In further evidence of the anti-Israel sentiment on the Egyptian street, local media reported this week on two instances in which the Israeli flag was removed from Israel’s embassy and the residence of the Israeli ambassador to Egypt.
“The public, if you ask them, wants to cut the pipeline with Israel,” said Eli Shaked, a former ambassador to Cairo who was involved in the flurry of diplomatic contacts over the weekend to avoid a downgrade of ties. “They don’t care. They want to see blood, and they don’t care whether it’s the blood of Mubarak or the Israelis.
“We pray and we keep our fingers crossed,” Shaked continued, “that the supreme military council in Cairo will show resilience and stand firm.”
Egypt has accused Israel of killing its soldiers in the border shootout last Thursday. So far, Cairo hasn’t resisted any public acknowledgement that the attacks came from its territory.
Though Shaked believes Israel must reach out to restore its ties with Egypt, he doesn’t believe that Israel should meet Egyptian demands for an apology. What’s more, Israel can no longer assume its border with Egypt will continue to be sleepy and quiet. He said there needs to be a “sharp” change in Israel’s approach to the 250-mile-long border with Sinai.
Analysts agree that means accelerating work on a sophisticated fence, erecting more border posts, and adding more patrols and troops. Such a shift, if not handled deftly, could further chill relations with the Egyptians. Moreover, it is likely to require additional funds to the defense budget.
Hillel Frisch, a professor of political science at Bar Ilan University, said the steady deterioration of Egyptian control in Sinai could turn the border into a conflict hot spot like Israel’s border with Jordan in the 1960s, with Lebanon in the 1980s, and with the West Bank in the 2000s.
“Contentious borders have shifted over the years,” Frisch said. “No doubt we’re seeing a new contentious border which is going to be [with Sinai].”
To be sure, most analysts agree that the decline in Egyptian control over Sinai did not begin with the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. In recent years, rockets were fired from Sinai in the direction of Eilat. There have been repeated warnings from Israeli security agencies of terrorist plans to kidnap Israeli vacationers in Sinai.
Terrorists with links to global jihadist groups like al-Qaeda are reputed to be active there. And all of Israel knows that Sinai is a notorious base for Bedouin smugglers who help African asylum seekers infiltrate the border. Israeli conventional wisdom sees the Bedouin as local mercenaries bent on undermining Egypt.
How bad is the rift created by the attack? According to a report in the Maariv daily newspaper, Egypt’s ambassador in Israel had packed his bags to leave before Field Marshal Mohammed Tantawi, Egypt’s military leader, intervened.
Egypt backed down from the recall, only after U.S. and other Western diplomats intervened.
Shlomo Brom, a fellow at the Tel Aviv University’s National Institute for Strategic Studies, said it was encouraging that Israeli-Egyptian communication continued throughout the incident and an Israeli military official visited Cairo afterward. Brom also credited the Egyptian government for not bowing to public pressure and calls to break ties.
“If you were in a revolutionary situation, after the government was brought down, and you have these kinds of popular demonstrations, and heightened feelings, you can imagine how difficult it is to deal with that,” Brom said.
Surely a key factor in maintaining ties with Israel is the recognition in Cairo that a canceled peace treaty could well mean the loss of billions of dollars in U.S. aid.
Many, though, believe the Thursday attack and the Egyptian reaction should serve as a wake-up call for Israeli policy makers.
Uzi Dayan, a former deputy army chief of staff, said that Egypt is not upholding its end of the peace treaty. “This is an indicator of where Egypt is going, which is a very important question. Will it be an Islamist regime, or will it be democratic?”
Though Defense Minister Ehud Barak helped stoke tension with Egypt by mentioning in public Cairo’s weakened presence in Sinai as a factor in the attacks, he and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made the right moves in de-escalating the crisis, said Yossi Alpher, the co-editor of Bitterlemons.org. “Barak’s statement of contrition and encouraging Egypt to mediate a cease-fire in the fighting with Hamas both helped ease tensions.
“Obviously, Israel has zero control over what happens in Egypt, and little influence over the attitude of the future rulers of Egypt,” Alpher continued. “But so much is at stake with regards to a stable border that we have to bend over backward and do everything to contribute to stability. What was unexpected was that the government would deal with it quite so skillfully.”
The crisis with Egypt comes at a time when Israel is trying to pick up the pieces of its former alliance with Turkey. Diplomatic relations have been in a deep freeze over the last year because of Turkey’s demand for an Israeli apology for the army’s killing of nine pro-Palestinian activists on the blockade-busting Mavi Marmara cruise ship. Israel refuses to apologize, in the same way it refuses to apologize to Egypt.
Alpher believes that Netanyahu should go much farther to satisfy the Egyptians because deterioration in relations could have much more far-reaching fallout: for the last three decades Israel has enjoyed a peaceful border in the south.
“When you look at the prospect of a more radical change in Egypt, you recognize how much we’ve benefited from the peace treaty with Egypt,” Alpher said. “You have to contemplate that things could get a lot worse … We can much more easily live without Turkey than without Egypt.’’
On the streets of southern Israel, public opinion toward Egypt ranged from indignation to resignation.
“Ignore them like they ignore us,” said Haim Cahlon, when asked about what Israel should do. The 32-year-old worker at a falafel stand in Ashkelon acknowledged that former President Mubarak was friendly to Israel, but there’s no guarantees for the future. “If they wanted, they would dump us. Probably they have something to lose.”
Nelly Hassan, a 56-year-old owner of a lotto franchise at the Ashkelon mall, said that Mubarak used to “close one eye” to terrorism and now it’s gotten worse.
“But even Mubarak’s one eye closed was better than nothing,” Hassan said. “We need to hold onto them until the last moment.”