[This article first appeared on the website of the new Israel-based 24-hour news channel (broadcasting non-stop news and features in English, French, and Arabic) i24News. The newscasts can be watched at this website: www.i24news.tv]
Israel finds itself in an undesirable position, cautiously watching the crisis in Egypt unfold
by YOSSI MELMAN in Tel Aviv
The Israeli political and military echelon is observing the tragic events unfolding in Egypt with deep concern and the frustrating knowledge that there is very little that it can do.
The best course of action that Israel can take is to take no action and lower its profile — while sitting and hoping that somehow law and order will return, and that at least the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt (which has survived for 34 years, some tumultuous) will somehow outlast the storm. But such a hope may well be no more than wishful thinking.
Yet there are two unseen courses of action that Israel has taken. On the diplomatic front, Israeli officials have attempted to persuade their American and European Union counterparts not to be too harsh in their condemnation of the violent actions by Egypt’s post-Morsi authorities.They explained that Egypt’s ‘strongman’ General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the military had no choice but to topple President Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood government. Their hand was forced by Morsi’s inability to halt the economic deterioration, his failure to keep the streets safe, and his efforts to “Islamize” the constitution while purging the judiciary and military branches and installing his cronies.
Israel only partially succeeded. The Obama Administration has agreed, for the time being, not to suspend the annual $1.5 billion of mainly military aid to Egypt. Yet Israeli officials expressed their disappointment at the strongly worded condemnation issued by President Obama and his decision to cancel joint U.S.-Egypt military exercises.
Israeli officials — in private — went so far as to accuse President Obama of betraying Egypt, one of America’s most loyal allies in the region, twice: once, by siding with the protestors against President Hosni Mubarak in 2010-11; and now for the second time by practically siding with the Muslim Brotherhood.
A senior Israeli official said that “Egypt is just one recent example. President Obama has no direction, and he is always reacting too late and shows no leadership.”
Israel’s concern is that the condemnation and lack of a coherent, clear U.S. policy will further weaken the fragile government controlled by General al-Sisi, toughen the brinkmanship of the Muslim Brotherhood, and strengthen the will of Islamic radicals to prevent any political solution.
Ultimately, Israeli officials fear the peace treaty and security arrangements between the two countries will be eroded. Israel and Egypt share a border of 270 kilometers (160 miles) stretching from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea resort of Eilat. To maintain peace and tranquility, Israel and Egypt have reportedly cooperated in the field of intelligence. The cooperation has to remain secret to avoid being manipulated by General al-Sisi’s opponents who might portray him as a “collaborator.”
The second action taken by Israel was to allow the Egyptian army to bring reinforcements to the demilitarized Sinai, including armored vehicles and gunship helicopters to try to uproot the al-Qaeda affiliated terrorists’ nests and cells, which have found shelter in the vast and usually unpopulated desert. Their numbers vary in different estimates from hundreds to three thousand. Most of the terrorists and their associates are local Bedouin Arabs, but they have been backed by “volunteers” from Yemen, Somalia, Iraq and “defectors” from Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza.
Israel has been very cautiously adhering to a passive policy in the war against the Sinai jihadists. Israel has deployed the Iron Dome anti-rocket battery to intercept rockets fired in the direction of Eilat. The Israeli rationale is not to violate Egyptian sovereignty, which would undermine General al-Sisi’s efforts on two fronts: at home against attempts by the Muslim Brotherhood to wreak chaos and havoc, and in Sinai against the Jihadists.
Israel has, however, deviated twice from this policy in the last year. The first was in August 2012 during a hot pursuit against terrorists who had infiltrated Israel, where an Israeli helicopter penetrated the Sinai airspace and fired a missile which killed the terrorists but also five Egyptian soldiers. Israel apologized for the incident.
The second time was a week ago when, according to foreign media reports, an Israeli drone aircraft fired missiles and killed four terrorists on the Egyptian side of Rafah, a town split between Egypt and Gaza ruled Hamas. The terrorists were attempting to launch rockets against Israeli territory. Israel considers such terrorists a “ticking bomb” and feels it’s within her right to self-defense to preempt. Yet Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, without taking responsibility, remarked that “Israel respects and will respect Egyptian sovereignty.”
This sentence epitomizes Israeli policy towards Egypt. However, that policy is clouded with a growing fear that Israel is not only sitting on the edge of volcano on its northern border, facing Hezbollah and the civil war in Syria, but that the lava is slowly spreading in its direction from Egypt.