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Saturday, April 19, 2014

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The new Egypt poses fresh challenges to Israel

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In an announcement earlier this month, Egypt’s military rulers proclaimed Jan. 25 as an official holiday to mark the first anniversary of the 18-day national uprising that led to the ouster of Hosni Mubarak’s authoritarian regime. Roughly 800 protesters were killed during that brief rebellion, which doomed a secular, pro-western government that broadly honoured Egypt’s historic peace treaty with Israel.

While many Egyptians regard the holiday in celebratory terms and look forward to the day when Egypt will truly be a beacon of democracy in the Arab world, Israel is wary, fearing the unintended consequences of democratization.

Free elections in the Gaza Strip in 2006 brought Hamas – Israel’s Islamist arch-enemy – to power. Now, in Egypt, two formerly banned Islamic fundamentalist political parties that are just as unfriendly to Israel, the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Nour, have won about two-thirds of the seats in parliamentary elections.

Egypt is thus on the cusp of acquiring an Islamic government.

Reading the handwriting on the wall, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently predicted that Israel cannot realistically expect to have the same level of “intimacy” with the new Egypt.

Although he observed that Egypt has a vested interest in preserving its 1979 peace treaty with Israel, a cornerstone of Israel’s strategic doctrine, he added a telling caveat: “We may find ourselves in an environment more hostile than ever.”

More ominously still, Netanyahu noted that Israel cannot solely rely on the peace treaty for its security in the south, warning that it “could come undone.”

Since the momentous uprising in Egypt, a by-product of the so-called Arab Spring in the Middle East, Israel has increased military spending and upgraded defences adjacent to the porous Egyptian border.

Along the entire frontier, Israel is continuing to build a security fence, which was originally envisaged as a barrier to stem the infiltration of illegal migrants from Africa.

Since Mubarak’s downfall, Israel has had reason to be concerned by developments in the Arab world’s historically most important, and populous, country.

A wide range of Egyptian politicians have questioned the peace treaty, although the head of Egypt’s ruling military council, Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, has declared that previously signed agreements will be respected.

The Muslim Brotherhood, however, has projected a mixed message. It has called for a review of the treaty, and one of its spokesmen has recommended that it be subjected to a referendum. The party’s vice-chair, meanwhile, has said that relations with Israel will be determined by its treatment of the Palestinians.

Al-Nour, which is more radical than the Muslim Brotherhood, has indicated it will respect the treaty.

Egypt’s former prime minister, Essam Sharaf, has said that the Camp David accords, which underpin the treaty, is not “a sacred thing and is always open to discussion.” Nabil El-Araby, the Egyptian secretary general of the Arab League, has said the treaty is not as sacred as the Qur’an.

One of the treaty’s most ardent defenders in Egypt is its former ambassador to Israel, Mohammed Bassiouny, who served from 1988 to 2001. By his reckoning, it enabled Egypt to regain the Sinai Peninsula, stabilized the region, enhanced the importance of the Suez Canal flows and Egypt’s ties with the West, and increased foreign investment.

Nevertheless, many Egyptians want to revoke the treaty. According to a Pew Research Center poll conducted last year, 36 per cent of Egyptians are in favour of maintaining it, while 54 per cent want it scrapped. 

Observers were not surprised by the results of this survey. On the grassroots level, as well as in intellectual circles, anti-Israel sentiments run deep in Egypt.

Last September, in an unprecedented turn of events, the Israeli embassy in Cairo was sacked as police stood idly by. The attack, which came on the heels of an incident in which a protester climbed up to the embassy and tore down the Israeli flag, forced Israel to evacuate the building and fly most of its diplomats home.

Prior to these events, thousands of Egyptians marched to the Israeli consulate in Alexandria on two separate occasions, chanting pro-Palestinian slogans and demanding a complete halt in Egypt’s co-operation, such as it is, with Israel.

Israel, too, is concerned by the deteriorating security situation in the Sinai Peninsula. Last August, a band of Palestinian terrorists crossed into the Sinai from the Gaza Strip and murdered eight Israelis, six civilians and two soldiers, in the Negev. Israel retaliated, killing six Palestinians. Amid the fighting, Israel accidentally killed several Egyptian policemen and soldiers.

Egypt lodged an official protest and threatened to recall its ambassador in Tel Aviv, but was dissuaded from doing so by the United States. Israel defused the crisis by issuing a statement of regret for the deaths of the Egyptians.

Given the lawlessness that has prevailed in the Sinai since 2011, Israel has permitted Egypt to station more troops there than allowed by the Camp David accords.

But the deployments have not made much of a difference so far. Although Egypt claims that the security situation is well in hand, smugglers transporting arms into Gaza are operating freely, and the pipeline there that supplies Israel with 40 per cent of its gas has been blown up 10 times since last spring.

These repeated acts of sabotage emboldened Netanyahu to say that Egypt has had a “hard time” controlling the Sinai. Strangely enough, Netanyahu’s comment angered Egypt’s ambassador to the Palestinian Authority, Yasser Othman, who claimed that Israel is plotting to retake the Sinai.

The pipeline issue has aroused indignation in Egypt.

Egyptians who are critical of the 2005 deal in which Egypt agreed to ship gas to Israel for the next 20 years contend that Mubarak, his son and their cronies improperly negotiated the sale of gas to Israel at disadvantageous prices. Amid the furor, the former minister of energy and five ministry employees have been arrested, having been accused of cheating the state out of more than $700 million.

Much to Israel’s concern, Egypt has loosened border controls at the Rafah crossing leading into Gaza. During the Mubarak era, the border was opened only sporadically, ensuring that terrorists did not slip into Israel.

To Israel’s additional annoyance, Egypt has established better relations with Hamas. Last May, Egypt brokered a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement, which remains unimplemented. Egypt claimed that the pact would end Palestinian divisions and thus uplift the prospects for peace with Israel. Israel has warned that Hamas’ inclusion in the Palestinian Authority will dash the chances for peace.

In yet other signs of the times, Egypt permitted the passage of two Iranian warships through the Suez Canal for the first time in three decades and informed Israel that Jewish pilgrims will no longer be able to visit the tomb of Yaakov Abu Hatzira, a revered 19th-century rabbi, in the Nile Delta.

And in line with its traditional Mideast policy, Egypt has continued to criticize Israel’s settlement activities in eastern Jerusalem and the West Bank.

It’s evident that Israel faces a new reality in Egypt since last year’s uprising.

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