Early last year Israelis watched with bated breath as mass protests swept Egypt, threatening to unseat long-time autocratic ruler Hosni Mubarak (whom Israel had described as a “close regional ally”). Mubarak was toppled following the eighteen-day popular uprising and a jittery Israel has since kept a watchful eye on its southern neighbour amid fears that the incoming government would not be as accommodating as the Mubarak government had been.
Israel’s worst fears of an Islamist rise to power were realised after Islamists dominated parliament in legislative elections last year and the Muslim Brotherhood candidate won the presidential election in June. Islamist President Mohamed Morsy’s election victory, Israeli analysts warned, did not bode well for the future of peace with Israel. While some observers argue that Israeli concerns are justified (given Morsy’s fiery anti-Israeli presidential campaign rhetoric), others believe it may be an opportunity for ‘real peace’ in the troubled region. Should Islamist rule in Egypt be cause for growing Israeli concern or is it indeed a new opportunity for peace?
Perhaps a look at what Egyptian-Israeli relations were like under Mubarak, and developments since the fall of the authoritarian president, can help answer this question. Despite a peace treaty in place since 1979, Egyptian Israeli relations have never been warm. Instead, a ‘cold’ peace has prevailed between the two former foes; limited to diplomatic representation, minimal trade ties and one-way tourism from Israel to Egypt. Contacts have been confined to governmental-level consultations on mostly security issues and apart from Israeli tourists vacationing in Sinai’s beach resorts, there has been little people-to-people interaction. Hostility towards Israel in Egyptian media meanwhile reflects general public sentiment against normalisation of ties between the two countries. From ‘anti-Semitic’ drama serials broadcast on Egyptian TV channels to newspaper articles inciting hatred and violence towards Israel and songs like Shaaban Abdel Rehim’s “I hate Israel”, all have gained popularity for expressing the inherent animosity towards Israel, allowing people to vent their anger at Egypt’s former foe. Yet, for more than thirty years, Egypt has miraculously upheld the shaky peace deal. Today there are increasing concerns that the fragile relationship between Egypt and Israel may be about to take a turn for the worse and, analysts warn, the peace deal may be in jeopardy.
A 2005 Egypt-Israel gas deal, the largest commercial deal between the two neighboring states, was scrapped in April over alleged “Israeli violations of the contract.” Israel in turn accused Egypt of failure to protect the gas pipeline against repeated militant attacks that took place after the fall of Mubarak. Indeed, over the past eighteen months, there have been no fewer than 14 attempts to sabotage the pipeline transporting natural gas to Israel at below market prices. A domestic gas shortage had caused Egyptians to become increasingly disgruntled with the controversial Mubarak-era deal. While Egypt’s decision to terminate the deal was celebrated in Egypt, it sent shockwaves through Israel, where the move was seen as a worrying sign of worse things to come.
Moreover, a deadly border attack on an Egyptian base earlier this month that killed 16 Egyptian border guards has, according to analysts, put Egyptian-Israeli relations to the test once more. The latest attack came less than two months after an Israeli man was killed in a border assault by militants who had infiltrated Israel from Egypt. This month’s tragic incident, the deadliest yet, increased concerns for the security of the northeast border region, prompting Egypt to deploy reinforcements including anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles to bolster forces in the Sinai peninsula, according to media reports. It remains unclear however whether Egypt coordinated the move with Israel beforehand. Israeli media in recent days described the deployment as “the most serious breach yet of the 1979 peace treaty,” due to the peace agreement’s restrictions on the number of troops and the type of weaponry Egypt can deploy in the border region.
Since the January 2011 popular uprising, there’s been growing concern over the increasing lawlessness in the border region, including smuggling through underground tunnels linking the border towns of Rafah and Gaza, increased abductions of foreign tourists and illicit cross-border trafficking of African migrants into Israel. With a host of other domestic problems to deal with, including a faltering economy and a burgeoning budget deficit, the Egyptian government did little about the security vacuum in the rogue region, that is until the 5 August attack. The brutal assault by Islamist militants sounded an alarm, alerting Egyptians to the looming security threat.
Egypt has since responded by launching a major sweep of the border region to track the suspects. It has also closed the Rafah border crossing (which had been partially open since May last year to ease the suffering of 1.5 million Gazans in the beseiged coastal strip). Furthermore, Egypt has reportedly destroyed some of the underground tunnels which had been used to smuggle food, fuel and people to and from Hamas-controlled Gaza. All this is good news for Israel which, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last week, “shares the common interest of maintaining a safe border with Egypt.” But instead of rejoicing, there’s been growing alarm in Israel over Egypt’s recent deployment of the anti-aircraft missiles and other military equipment to the Sinai. So alarmed was the Israeli Premier that he sent Egypt a message, communicated through the White House, that Israel “would not tolerate a further buildup of military equipment in the northern Sinai,” according to an Israeli daily.
In the wake of the recent attack, calls have grown louder in Egypt for the country to revisit the 1979 peace treaty and analysts, intellectuals and some members of the Muslim Brotherhood have argued in recent days that “it has become imperative to deploy more troops to the Sinai.” Israel, meanwhile, insists that further deployment is “unnecessary” after agreeing to an earlier Egyptian request to allow troop reinforcements in the border region. Seeking to allay Israeli concerns, President Morsy’s spokesman Yasser Ali has reiterated Morsy’s commitment to respecting the peace treaty. Yet, Israel has adopted its own set of security measures to allegedly “prevent further attacks,” including the deployment of an “Iron Dome” anti-missile system in the southernmost town of Eilat (after a Grad missile was fired into the territory days earlier) and the building of a border fence with Egypt .
Amid reports of beefed-up security on the two sides of the border, and heightened tensions, there are concerns over a possible escalation and moderate voices are calling on both Egypt and Israel to show restraint. The two states had reportedly consulted closely after the 5 August Sinai attack. Israel, we were also told, had shared intelligence with Egypt days before the attack and had cooperated with Egypt in helping to identify the attackers. It is this collaborative spirit that is now needed to cement ties between the two neighbouring states and ensure that the peace treaty remains intact. Securing the Sinai against future attacks has become a priority issue for the new Islamist President but it is also in Israel’s best interests. Dialogue is the only way to avert escalation and guarantee a win-win scenario.