Yesterday brought news that the Israeli navy was deploying two warships to an area near the Egyptian border in the Red Sea, citing concern over potential terror attacks on Israel from the area and Iranian naval maneuvers. It is not clear what the warships would do against terrorists, unless they were being positioned as a platform for special operations forces. The Israeli deployment likely has to do with the Iranians, but it speaks more broadly to the complexities of Egypt-Israel relations against the backdrop of Egypt’s evolving political environment.
The unprecedented (since 1979) tension between Cairo and Jerusalem in late August was a reminder that the predictably stable relationship between Egypt and Israel over the last 30 years is now over. Egyptian public opinion wouldn’t have it any other way and it is clear that Egyptian politicians are responding to this sentiment. When Israeli forces accidentally killed five Egyptian soldiers, including an officer, a variety of would-be Egyptian presidents were quickly outmaneuvering each other to sound tough on Israel. Interestingly, the most muted response was from the Islamist end of the political spectrum, most likely because they do not need to prove their anti-Zionist bona fides. In any event, even the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which has confirmed (and reconfirmed) that Egypt will uphold past agreements, warns that Israel must, for example, seriously negotiate on the Palestinian front, otherwise implicitly suggesting that there are consequences of ignoring public opinion for them and for Israel.
There is not much Israelis can do about Egyptian public opinion so they have focused their attention on trying to figure who they can trust and building a relationship with the SCAF. There are both good practical reasons for the Israelis to reach out to the military—the SCAF is, after all, in charge and there is a security problem in Sinai—and a more profound rationale: the officers are the only people left whom the Israelis know and with whom it is not political suicide (yet) to have contact. Still, Israel’s relationship with Egypt’s Ministry of Defense has not always been smooth. In 2007, for example, when Congress was seeking to dock part of Egypt’s military assistance, Egypt’s military establishment was hopping mad at the Israelis for what the officers believed was Israel’s role in stoking anti-Egypt sentiment on Capitol Hill. Granted, the officers are overlooking a variety of issues—police brutality, repression of peaceful protests, egregious violations of basic individual rights—that led some in Congress to try to penalize Egypt through a reduction in its annual military assistance package, but Israel’s protests to Washington about Gaza tunnel smuggling certainly contributed to congressional hostility toward Cairo.
If the SCAF is indeed Israel’s best ally in Egypt, the Israelis have a lot of work to do. It seems that the Israelis understand this and have been relatively more forthcoming than in the past concerning the deployment of Egyptian forces in Sinai. Of course, the Israelis are very worried about chaos in Sinai and what that means for their own security—an issue that became live with the recent flare-up of violence along the Israel-Gaza border and the Egyptian-Israeli frontier. Still, Israel’s green light for the deployment of approximately 2,500 troops in mid-August, an additional deployment of 1,500 this week, and, importantly an indication that Jerusalem may be prepared to show some flexibility on provisions that restrict Egyptian forces in Sinai, are all Israel’s way of throwing the SCAF a political bone. The Israelis don’t always read their neighbors correctly, but they seem to have come to understand how Egypt’s limited sovereignty in Sinai hurts the SCAF politically and Israel physically.
The emerging Israeli policy is a risk, though. It may not be so easy for a larger Egyptian force in Sinai to pacify the region, which by most accounts is awash in guns and bad guys of all varieties. That provides further rationale for additional forces in Sinai, which dovetails nicely with the political benefits for the SCAF and virtually everyone else in Egypt associated with A larger military footprint in Sinai. The Israelis would thus find themselves in the uncomfortable position of having enabled a fundamental change in the Camp David Accords and Egypt-Israel peace treaty without simultaneously resolving or even mitigating the Sinai security problem. As they say in Israel, “nidfaknu.”