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Israel and Egypt’s Deeper Ties

Recent tensions only reveal fundamental shared interests. Hopefully.

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A protester outside the Israeli Embassy in Cairo.(-/AFP/Getty Images)

The 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt called for Egypt to regain sovereignty over Sinai (which Israel had captured in the course of 1967’s Six Day War) on the condition that the peninsula be demilitarized. Egypt, under cooperative President Hosni Mubarak, essentially kept it so. However, starting earlier this year, as protests engulfed Egypt; and then as energy-exporting infrastructure sustained repeated sabotage; and more generally as post-Mubarak Egypt grew in instability, Israel allowed Egypt to move some troops in to the sensitive area. After the events of the last ten days—which involved a narrowly averted diplomatic crisis after Israel accidentally killed five Egyptian policeman in the Sinai following an attack by Gaza-based terrorists that killed seven Israelis—there is a good chance Israel will permit remilitarization of the Sinai yet further. Late last week it was that Defense Minister Ehud Barak would allow Egypt to deploy helicopters, armored vehicles (though not tanks), and thousands of troops into Sinai; over the weekend, Barak denied this, and there were noises about how such a move may require Knesset approval anyway. Even so, Egypt is considering creating a buffer zone between it and its border with Gaza, which would include demolishing all the smuggling tunnels. Even today it sent an additional 1500 troops to Sinai due to intelligence that the group Islamic Jihad is planning an attack on Israel from there. All this in the midst of anti-Israeli rage (you are by now familiar with Flagman, yes?) on the streets of Cairo.

Remilitarizing Sinai to some extent is probably good for Israel and for Egypt. “In the past, Israel opposed any alteration of the terms of the treaty,” the Times’s Ethan Bronner reported this weekend. “But the lawlessness—a mix of Bedouin tribalism, radical Muslim infiltration, and a breakdown of Egypt’s security control after its revolution—affects not only Israel, but Egypt, which depends on tourism revenue and gas exports from there.” He added, “As a result, officials here say, the Egyptians are cooperating with Israel. … Israeli officials also say the Egyptian military is making sure that the attack on Israel, which received very limited coverage in Egypt at first, is now getting more public attention.” The Washington Post’s Joel Greenberg sang a similar tune, reporting that the contacts between Egypt’s new military leaders and Israeli officials remain strong.

What happens when more radical groups, chiefly the Muslim Brotherhood, begin obtaining real power in Egypt, starting as early as the parliamentary elections scheduled for next month? (“Who rules Egypt,” one Israeli official asked Bronner, “the army or Tahrir Square?”) Certainly you can find plenty of elements in the Brotherhood who say, well, exactly what you would fear they would say about the Zionist “gang” (Eric Trager has the essential reporting here); certainly you can find the Brotherhood moving to ban tourists from wearing bikinis on the Alexandria beach. In a sense, though, it makes more sense to worry about its bathing-suit polices than its Israel rhetoric. The Brotherhood is going to say not-nice things about Israel and Jews—this is central to what it is and part of its appeal. But if and when it is elected to power, it is going to need to keep the gas flowing, the much-more-powerful Israeli military at bay, and the wealthy, skimpily-clad tourists coming to the beach.

Flagman or no, Egyptian popular interests militate for a basic, cold peace with Israel, and doubtfully one much colder than that which Israel welcomed for three decades with Mubarak. In the long run, an alliance between Israeli popular interests and Egyptian popular interests could be more stable than an alliance between Israeli popular interests and an Egyptian autocrat; it might even bring Israeli popular interests and Egyptian popular interests closer together. Anyway, there is certainly no going back to Mubarak, or a Mubarak-like figure, so mutual selfishness is the best Israel can hope for.

Report: Israel To Allow Egypt to Deploy Troops in Sinai [Haaretz]
Barak: Israel Won’t Let Egypt Deploy More Troops in Sinai at the Present [Haaretz]
With Mideast in Turmoil, Israel Debates Strategy [NYT]
The Unbreakable Muslim Brotherhood: Grim Prospects for a Liberal Egypt [Foreign Affairs/Washington Institute for Near East Policy]
Egypt’s Brotherhood Declares War on the Bikini [JPost]
Earlier: One Weekend, Two Crises
Why Egypt Can Handle Democracy

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I posted this on another piece, but it seems apropos here as well:

How Anti-Semitism Prevents Peace by David Patterson
Middle East Quarterly, Summer 2011, pp. 73-83

Oren Kessler says:

When wishful thinking poses as analysis.


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Israel and Egypt’s Deeper Ties

Recent tensions only reveal fundamental shared interests. Hopefully.

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