Sunday, September 11, 2011

by a Thread
American diplomatic achievements in
the Middle East. It represents one of
the greatest Western victories of the
Cold War. It has prevented the drift
toward a region-wide Arab-Israeli military
confrontation for more than 30 years. It is
the foundation both of Israel’s security doctrine
and the Jewish state’s transformation
from an economic basket case into a firstworld
economic power. It has made possible
every hopeful move toward Arab-Israeli
peace for the past generation. And it – the
Egypt-Israel peace treaty – is hanging on by
a thread.
If the audacity of the joint Palestinian-
Egyptian, Gaza-to-Eilat terrorist attack in
mid-August were not scary enough, its
potential to explode into a full-blown Egypt-
Israel crisis was positively frightening.
In an instant, the real news story – a joint
Palestinian-Egyptian team of jihadist terrorists
march 200 kilometers across Sinai and
then cross the border to launch multiple
attacks on civilian targets, only to return to
Egyptian territory and escape into the biblical
wilderness – was airbrushed from history
and the airwaves were instead filled with
Arab condemnations of Israeli perfidy for
having the temerity of trying to pursue, kill
or capture terrorists.
Throngs took to the streets denouncing
the Camp David agreements and politicians
took turns ramping up the popular frenzy by
calling for the recall of the Egyptian ambassador,
the expulsion of his Israeli counterpart,
and even the suspension of the peace
treaty itself.
Cooler heads eventually prevailed.
Lubricated by an almost-apology from
Israel’s defense minister and a private visit
by a senior Israeli defense official, Egyptian
officialdom – in the person of Minister of
Defense and de facto head of state, Field
Marshal Muhammad Hussein al-Tantawi –
finally decided to calm the situation.
The lameduck Egyptian foreign minister
helpfully reminded his countrymen that
Egypt’s national interests are well-served by
having an ambassador in Tel Aviv and the
Supreme Command of the Armed Forces,
the country’s ruling clique since the ouster
of Hosni Mubarak, launched an operation to
reclaim a measure of control in the largely
lawless Sinai. Perhaps reflecting the military’s
mood, a proclaimed “million-man
march” against Israel drew only a few hundred
Still, the damage was done – or to be
accurate, the aftermath of the Sinai attack
only confirmed how firmly embedded in
Egyptian political culture is the phenomenon
of antipathy toward Israel. Today, there
is no major political figure left on Egypt’s
national scene willing to defend peace with
Israel. Among the Islamists, whose poisonous
anti-Semitism has been diluted of late
as a tactic to earn swooning praise from
international media and global democracy
activists, this is no surprise.
But this is even the case among the
alleged liberals. Both Ayman Nour, the
Ghad party leader who owes his freedom
from Mubarak’s jail to the importuning of
American political leaders and activists
(many of them Jewish) and Amr Moussa,
the populist former Arab League secretary
general who earned a reputation among
diplomats as a practical-minded wheelerdealer
when he served as foreign minister,
have declared the Camp David era over. And
they may be the best of the lot.
Egyptians evince no zest for peace
with Israel, they also show no
appetite for war. Militias aren’t forming to
liberate Palestine; the same Muslim
Brotherhood that sent activists to help prevent
the nakba during the Israel War of
Independence 63 years ago is far more concerned
today with balancing three compet-
GUEST COLUMN: Robert Satloff
Two decades of disuse and neglect may have
made salvaging Egypt-Israel peace
in the post-Mubarak era an impossible task.
But the stakes are too high not to try.
Israel’s ‘cold peace’ with Egypt, which has endured for more than three decades, was severely buffeted by the fall of Hosni
Mubarak’s regime in February. The fragile nature of the peace was highlighted by the mutual recriminations that followed a
ing domestic goals – achieving electoral
success, preventing being outflanked by the
even more radical Salafists, and managing
its on-again/off-again partnership with the
country’s military leadership.
Egyptians, the saying goes, are committed
to the Palestinian cause, just not to the
Palestinian people. The result is that many
believe they can exist in a nether state of no
war, no peace.
After years of reducing the relationship
with Israel to its most minimalist components,
it is not difficult to see how many
Egyptians could reach that conclusion. On
the eve of the Tahrir Square uprising, the
entire relationship between these two neighbors
had been whittled down to the sale of
gas, the operation of several low-profile
economic zones, measured security cooperation
in constraining the activities of radical
jihadists (especially those targeting Egypt)
and an uneasy political ménage à trois with
the United States.
Israeli leaders visiting Cairo made a beeline
to the presidential palace for tea with
Mubarak, a conversation with his intelligence
chief and perhaps his minister of
defense, and flew home, satisfied that they
had checked the Egyptian box.
For years, this was sufficient –
until it wasn’t anymore. In the
absence of public political
investment – which Egypt’s
leaders never wanted to make
and Israel’s leaders never considered
essential – none of these
factors are strong enough, individually
or collectively, to sustain
a long-term relationship.
Indeed, little of this is even likely
to survive Egypt’s revolutionary
Still, there is a huge difference
between an Egypt at peace with
Israel, locked into a series of contractual
obligations, sustaining at
least the skeleton of a security
and intelligence relationship, and
desirous of Israeli-Palestinian
diplomatic progress, if only to
validate its original go-it-alone
move, and an Egypt untethered
by any formal relationship with
Israel, swaying this way and that with the
gyrations of the public mood, sliding (perhaps
backsliding) inexorably from peace to
non-belligerency, to even worse.
Forget the Palestinian gambit at the
United Nations. Don’t lose sleep about Grad
missiles from Hamas. Fear not the threats of
Syria’s Assad, Hizballah’s Nasrallah or al-
Qaeda’s Zawahiri. Compared to the potential
demise of Egypt-Israel peace, a huge
bonanza to radicals of every stripe and a
strategic calamity nearly on par with the
acquisition of nuclear weapons by the
Iranian mullahs, these are mere annoyances.
Ultimately, preserving Egypt-Israel
peace, at least to prevent a slow (and perhaps
not so slow) descent into belligerency,
will be a team effort. Everyone with an
interest in its preservation has a role to play.
For the Egyptian military, that means
prosecuting “Operation Eagle” – the effort
to recapture control of the Sinai – to the
fullest, sending the entire complement of
2,000 allowed troops into the peninsula (not
just 750) and rejecting the idea of an uneasy
truce with the Islamist-Bedouin alliance that
owns much of that empty space. On the
political level, this will also see the military
playing the pre-Erdogan role of the Turkish
army in terms of preventing Egypt’s rambunctious,
revolutionary political discourse
from straying into areas where it risks
national security.
For Israel, this will require the unnatural
act of diplomatic subtlety, creativity and
restraint. For example, whereas Israel has
legitimate grounds not to apologize to
Ankara over its outrageous role in the “Mavi
Marmara” incident, the Egyptian government’s
actions in the Sinai attack were nothing
like that of Turkey’s at sea; a more generous
statement on the unfortunate killing of
Egyptian security forces might have been
both appropriate and helpful.
Other Arab states should act, too. Saudi
Arabia may be no lover of Zion but the
Saudis have no interest in a hostile Egyptian-
Israeli relationship diverting attention from
the Iranian quest for regional influence.
Here, Riyadh can help by stopping the flow
of money to Salafis and other radicals that
has the impact of distorting politics and
accentuating the extremist narrative.
Ultimately, this effort will not succeed
without Washington. History will not be
kind to President Barack Obama if he
decides he can trade a minor success in
Libya for a strategic catastrophe in Egypt.
America’s influence in the Middle East
depends on its relationships with Israel,
Egypt and Saudi Arabia. With Israel and
Saudi Arabia, the relationship is bound up in
other equities (with the former, historic,
popular, cultural and strategic bonds; with
the latter, oil).
With Egypt, the link is Camp David. If
that connection suffers, America’s standing
in the region suffers, too. This will require
high-level U.S. engagement, both before
and after Egypt’s election season, to remind
Egyptians what is at stake in their choice of
political leaders and to remind those leaders
that their choices have consequences.
In the end, two decades of disuse and
neglect may have made salvaging Egypt-
Israel peace in the post-Mubarak era an
impossible task. But the stakes are too high
not to try. •
Robert Satloff is executive director of The
Washington Institute.
POROUS BORDER: IDF soldiers stand
guard near the border with Egypt
August 19, the day after a series of
terrorist attacks, originating in Sinai, left
eight Israelis dead and 25 injured
deadly terrorist attack from Egyptian Sinai in August. An angry Cairo mob demanded the abrogation of the peace treaty. The
Jerusalem Report spoke to leading commentators to assess the viability of peaceful relations with Israel’s most powerful neighbor.

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