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Egypt's new role in the conflict

Israel's best response is still to renew negotiations

bitterlemons, September 05, 2011 Edition 26

This is an arduous path, but the only promising one. It is highly unlikely that it will be adopted.

The terrorist attack launched from Sinai on August 18 against Israeli vehicles travelling to Eilat, and its sequels, have underscored and exacerbated four interlocking challenges facing Israel.

First, Gaza and Hamas. Israel seems to have no effective strategy for the multiple challenges presented by a Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's leadership, Israel withdrew unilaterally from the Gaza Strip and dismantled the Jewish settlements there, but it did not quite disengage from Gaza. Israeli policy then (2005) and since has vacillated between a genuine wish to disengage and a genuine concern with security. Smuggling and local production have created a meaningful arsenal of short- and medium-range rockets in Gaza, but Israel's decision-makers are certain that lifting the siege would result in a rapid build-up of a much larger arsenal of longer-range rockets and missiles. Israel is paying a heavy political and diplomatic price for a partially effective siege.

At present, there are no Israeli negotiations with the Palestinian Authority over a final status agreement. But should negotiations be resumed, Hamas, which so far has not accepted the Quartet conditions, can derail the negotiations or foil the implementation of a putative agreement by initiating large-scale hostilities. Even in the absence of a diplomatic process, Hamas and the smaller radical organizations can ignite the tinder box and restart an all too familiar vicious cycle by initiating a terrorist act or by launching rockets at will into such Israeli cities as Beersheba, Ashkelon and Ashdod.

Israel can retaliate by resuming targeted killings. This has proven to be an effective tactic but it also results in massive rocket attacks that disrupt life in a significant part of Israel. As the violence escalates, the pressure on the Israeli government to launch a large-scale military operation mounts. But the lessons of Operation Cast Lead (2008-9) are still fresh: such an operation is bound to exact a high toll without resolving the underlying problems. Israel does not want to reoccupy Gaza, is not anxious to reoccupy the "Philadelphi Strip" that separates Sinai from the Gaza Strip, and realizes that the Palestinian Authority is not anxious to return to Gaza on the Israel Defense Force's bayonets. In the current diplomatic environment, the cost of any large-scale military operation seems prohibitive.

The debate over these issues was renewed within the Israeli political system and the national security establishment and in the Israeli media in the aftermath of August 18. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and Israel (as well as Hamas) agreed to yet another ceasefire. The Israeli leadership understood that even if a significant change in Israel's posture vis-a-vis Hamas could be achieved, this was not the time to seek it.

A second challenge concerns Egypt. Israel's caution regarding Gaza derived to a large extent from the frailty of its current relationship with Cairo. In the aftermath of his fall from power, Husni Mubarak's relations with Israel are depicted almost nostalgically as much better than they actually were. Still, Mubarak was committed to the peace treaty with Israel, conducted a regional policy compatible with Israel's own view of the Middle East, and saw Hamas as an Iranian tool implanted on Egypt's border and allied with the Muslim Brotherhood, his domestic nemesis. In post-revolutionary Egypt the military leadership, which holds ultimate power, subscribes to more or less the same views and policies. But the military exercises influence rather than governing and has to take into account the views of several other actors and forces at work.

One of these forces is the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups that oppose the peace with Israel and support the Palestinians and particularly Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Another is the unstructured but influential groups that started the revolution and continue to act as a pressure group. At the height of the campaign to topple Mubarak they focused on domestic issues, but with the passage of time some came to advocate pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli positions. Yet another relevant actor is that part of the foreign policy establishment that had advocated harsher policies toward Israel in the Mubarak years and has now stepped up its criticism of Israel and the Egyptian-Israeli relationship. Two prominent members of this group are Amr Mousa, the leading candidate for the country's presidency, and Nabil al-Arabi, the current secretary general of the Arab League.

The military leadership is genuinely interested in imposing the government's authority in Sinai and preventing deterioration with Israel. But against this backdrop, when Israeli forces in hot pursuit of the August 18 terrorists also killed a number of Egyptian soldiers, the leadership was hard put to protect the relationship with Israel from the wrath of a galvanized Egyptian "street".

A third challenge is Sinai itself. For more than two decades after the signing of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty of 1979, the Sinai Peninsula was primarily a large, effective buffer zone--a pillar of the new Egyptian-Israeli security regime. More recently, as Mubarak's regime waned and lost control over the Bedouin population and as Gaza became a major arena of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, other issues came to the fore: weapons smuggling from Sinai into Gaza and vice versa, smuggling of drugs and illegal immigrants through the open Sinai-Israel border, and occasional terrorist acts launched from the Sinai.

Egypt and Israel had common interests and views in these matters but they also disagreed over several issues. Egypt suspected that Israel wanted to drop Gaza into its lap. Israel complained that Egypt did not invest a full effort in preventing arms smuggling into the Gaza Strip. Both governments realized that low- and mid-level Egyptian officers and bureaucrats did not comply with their own government's policies. These problems were exacerbated by the repercussions of the Egyptian revolution. To cite two examples: armed Bedouins stormed government installations; and the gas supply to Israel was interrupted by repeated sabotaging of the pipelines. These trends came to a head in the aftermath of August 18. The immediate tension and crisis were resolved but the prospect of a fresh crisis seems likely.

Finally, there is the challenge of the September vote in the United Nations. Efforts are still being invested in finding a formula for renewing Palestinian-Israeli negotiations ahead of the anticipated vote on Palestinian statehood at the UN General Assembly, but the prospects for success are dim. A UN vote approved by a large majority is likely to produce political and diplomatic tension and might lead to a wave of violence. In both cases, violence might break out along Israel's border with Gaza. Hamas would not relish an achievement credited to the PLO and Palestinian Authority and violence is likely to be contagious.

Against this backdrop, Israel's best option is to renew negotiations over a final status settlement and to insist vis-a-vis the Palestinian leadership, the US and the Quartet that any political settlement must also include the Gaza Strip. This is an arduous path, but the only promising one. It is highly unlikely that it will be adopted.

Published 5/9/2011 ©

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