Limits of maximum cooperation
examines Taba's impact on Egypt's relations with Israel
Click to view caption|
RARE MOMENT: Egyptian and Israeli rescue teams work together to remove debris and save survivors at the site of the bombed out Taba Hilton. In the face of the tragedy, Egypt offered 'maximum cooperation'
Egypt's immediate diplomatic reaction to the Taba explosion was a renewed call for a collective international effort against terrorism. During a European tour that included both Italy and France, President Hosni Mubarak firmly re-introduced his initiative for an international anti-terrorism conference to be held in the near future under the umbrella of the United Nations.
By taking this line, Egypt made several diplomatic statements. The first involved making a clear distinction between its anti- terrorism stance and the US-led "war on terror". "We are very clear about what we are talking about," commented an Egyptian official, "which is a UN-led effort and not just a set of moves that are particularly tailored to serve the interest of a particular country, be it in or out of the region."
The second objective was to "make it very clear that what happened in Taba was not an Egypt-specific incident, since terrorism is an international concern that has a negative impact on many countries, and as such should be dealt with from an international perspective", the official said.
Egypt's third point, the source said, is related to Israel. While extending what Egyptian diplomats qualify as "maximum cooperation with Israel" in both the search and rescue operation, and the subsequent investigation of the attacks, Egypt sent Israel a message that while it might temporarily accommodate Tel Aviv's wish for immediate direct coordination, any longer term and more profound security cooperation on terrorism between Egypt and Israel will have to be within a wider international context governed by the UN, and not subject to the lackadaisical nature of bilateral Egyptian-Israeli ties.
Cairo, sources said, was not that impressed by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's praise for Egypt's cooperation with Israel. Senior Egyptian officials made it very clear that they knew full well that Sharon's statements were meant to serve his own direct political objectives, as well as the power game being played with the Labour Party.
"We are not naïve," said one Egyptian official. "We have been working with this government for the past three years, and know where it is coming from. This is not a government that is interested in cementing peaceful and friendly relations with neighbours that it has peace treaties with."
Since last Thursday's attack, Egyptian and Israeli security officials have been meeting on a regular basis to exchange notes and leads. Egyptian officials qualify these meetings as business-like, and the Israeli press has been generally positive about them.
Still, Egyptian sources said, it was also quite clear that the Israelis are not showing enough appreciation for the Egyptian stance. "We did much more than what we had to," the source said, "and we thought they would show appreciation, but this has not yet been seen."
One thing Cairo is hoping for is a positive Israeli reaction to an Egypt proposal to upgrade the Egyptian presence in Sinai's demilitarised zone (DMZ). "I think that the Israelis must realise that the Egyptian presence in the DMZ is necessary and useful," said Osama El-Baz, President Mubarak's chief political adviser.
According to the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty, Egypt is only allowed to deploy lightly armed police in the DMZ. Egypt wants to upgrade the level of its security presence in the DMZ, and the level of armament carried by forces deployed there, without having to amend the peace treaty.
Israel, so far, has shown neither a positive or negative reaction to this request.
In any case, Egypt has been making it clear to the Israeli side that it is not willing to compromise its commitment to support the Palestinian right to independence, and will not become involved in joint clampdowns on militant groups, even if Cairo perceives them as a security threat.
Egypt is also determined not to change any of its political stances in the wake of the Taba attacks, even if it turns out that Palestinians were involved in masterminding, or carrying out, the attacks.
In statements made in Rome earlier this week, President Mubarak coupled his appeal for an international conference on terrorism with a warning against confusing peoples' quests to attain their legitimate rights with terrorism.
In Rome and in Paris, later in the week, Mubarak called for ending injustice and promoting tolerance and dialogue. "We have to work on a comprehensive plan that would consolidate the concept of tolerance, instead of extremism and violence," Mubarak said. He added that an integral part of this plan must involve eliminating the roots of "desperation and violence".
In Paris, Mubarak discussed with his French counterpart the potentials of joint Egyptian-French action to contain the mounting violence in the occupied Palestinian territories. "We believe that the European Union in general, and France in particular, could play an instrumental role on this front, and this is a key issue on the agenda of President Mubarak's talks with President Chirac," said presidential spokesman Maged Abdel-Fattah.
While direct Egyptian-Israeli security cooperation will probably continue for the next few days, it is likely to dwindle after that. Whether or not the Taba attacks will prompt closer Egyptian-Israeli encounters is something that will probably not be decided anytime soon.
Egyptian officials said, however, that it was unlikely that the attacks would have a particularly negative impact on bilateral relations. As far as they are concerned, those relations are already strained and cold, and have been for some time.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul- Gheit and Intelligence chief Omar Suliman, meanwhile, are still planning to visit Ramallah and Tel Aviv either later this month, or in early November (following the US elections) to try to catalyse efforts aimed at encouraging some diplomatic movement on the Palestinian-Israeli front.