Al-Ahram Weekly Online   15 - 21 September 2011
Issue No. 1064
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Israeli alarm over elections in Egypt

Concerned about a spike in anti-Israeli sentiment, Israel has pushed the US to pressure Egypt's ruling military council to delay parliamentary and presidential elections, writes Saleh Al-Naami in Gaza

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Protesters burn the Israeli flag before the attack on the embassy

Amos Yadlin, former chief of Israeli military intelligence, is one of the most respected generals for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, but he remains one of the strongest critics of Netanyahu's policies that resulted -- according to Yadlin -- in jeopardising the peace with Egypt.

Yadlin believes that this peace is one of the best strategic investments of the Hebrew state. "Anyone who wants to ensure the continued existence of this state must do everything to uphold the peace with Egypt," the general told Israeli radio on Sunday morning. "We have no future in this region if Egypt abandons peace with us. What is shocking is that our political leaders do not recognise the importance of investing in peace with Egypt to guarantee the foundations of Israel's national security."

The Israeli elite is unsympathetic towards Netanyahu, although he stayed up until 4:45am in his operations room on Saturday perspiring nervously as he watched events unfold inside and surrounding the Israeli embassy in Cairo. He made dozens of phone calls to US officials to bring the situation under control, as recorded by Israeli television cameras.

Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert offered the following advice to his successor to end the crisis: "You must realise that the Egyptians do not need to declare war against us to threaten our existence in this region. Move quickly; what is happening is a snowball effect that is entirely changing the strategic environment for Israel," Olmert told Israeli television on Saturday night.

Israeli columnists and commentators agreed that Netanyahu's government is responsible for deteriorating relations with Egypt. In a stinging article published on Sunday, Ari Shafit, senior writer at Haaretz newspaper, argued that damaged relations with Egypt prove without a shadow of a doubt that Israel's national security strategy has collapsed under the leadership of Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Shafit said that policies adopted by the Netanyahu-Lieberman duo greatly accentuated hostility towards Israel in the Arab world.

Shafit linked the weakening ties with Egypt to failing relations with Turkey, creating a new regional environment that could be "catastrophic". Shafit added that the obvious outcome is that fractures with Egypt crown the pitiful state of Israel that has existed for many years, and compounds Tel Aviv's international isolation under the leadership of the right-wing cabinet.

Ben Kasbet, senior commentator at Maariv newspaper, criticised Netanyahu's insistence to continue policies although they endanger Israel's security and future. He accused the prime minister of impotence, hesitation and indecision, although he is aware of the danger that his government's policies will usher in "a regression in Israel's stature and curtail its ability to exist in this region".

Kasbet predicted that Netanyahu would soon ask opposition leader Tzipi Livni to join an emergency cabinet to confront the challenges facing Israel. But Kasbet warned Livni against accepting Netanyahu's offer, emphasising the importance of letting "the Israeli public to make its own choices; either choose the Right or Left".

Political commentator Akiva Eldar opined that damaged relations between Israel and the Arab world are the result of stalled negotiations with the Palestinian Authority (PA), noting that Netanyahu's rejection of US President Barack Obama's proposal was a major factor in creating a hostile environment towards Israel in the Arab world. Eldar added in an article published in Haaretz that Netanyahu mistakenly believes that Israel's continued occupation of Palestinian land and stalled negotiations will not undermine Israel's regional and international standing. He added that all signs indicate that this assumption is inaccurate. Eldar further stated that history has proven that ties between Israel and Arab and Islamic countries only improve when negotiations between Israel and the PA are moving forward.

While the ruling elite in Israel are keen on hiding their serious concern about the outcry by the Egyptian public over the killing of Egyptian soldiers by the Israeli army three weeks ago, which climaxed in the weekend raid on the Israeli embassy in Cairo, it is apparent that political and military leaders in Israel are holding their breath towards the Egyptian street's reaction to Israel. Both right and left blocs in Tel Aviv are convinced that continued demonstrations in Egypt rejecting relations with Israel are a strategic catastrophe for Israel.

Amos Gilboa, a far right retired general and former chief of research in Israel's military intelligence, is making almost the same assertions as Yossi Sarid, the former minister of education and a prominent figure in Israel's left-wing. Like Sarid, Gilboa believes that continuing to uphold the Camp David Accords is a key guarantee for Israel's continued existence in the region.

Even cautious former labour minister retired general Ephraim Sneh told Israeli radio on 8 September that Israel's need for peace with Egypt far exceeds Cairo's need for the same peace. Sneh asserted that any progress by Israel in the future could not compensate for the immense loss in damaged relations with Egypt.

Retired general Doron Almog, who previously headed the southern command in the Israeli army, outlined the strategic dangers that could result from the collapse or fracture of "peace" with Egypt. Almog explained that this would mean an immediate and almost unbearable added military burden for the Israeli army, stating that if Israel were no longer at peace with Egypt it would directly need to return to an Israeli security posture based on new principles and greatly alter its security policies.

Almog further noted that the Israeli army would be required to introduce organisational, structural and logistical reforms that would raise economic costs on Israeli taxpayers, at a time when Israel is witnessing massive public demonstrations against the high cost of living and protests by the middle class against the policies of Netanyahu's government.

Yehshu Saghi, who previously served as the head of Israeli military intelligence, listed the requirements for the Israeli army if relations continue to deteriorate with Egypt. These include increasing the number of land forces by expanding the existing infantry division and introducing a new one, which is almost impossible in light of a retreat in secular Israeli youth volunteering in the army or its combat units. This would mean an added burden on those who are keen on serving in the army, especially the Zionist trend and new immigrants.

Naturally, this would result in compounded political and strategic damage because it would increase the influence of minorities on decision- makers, especially the Zionist religious forces of whom Jewish settlers in the West Bank and occupied Jerusalem are an important component.

What greatly dismays the Israeli elite are fears that deteriorating ties with Egypt are taking place at a time of key transformations in the Arab world, and in the wake of an escalating crisis between Tel Aviv and Ankara. In turn, this leaves the door wide open for transformations in Israel's regional ties because it will create a regional environment that curtails the ability of some Arab regimes, especially in Jordan, to continue their strategic alliance with Israel. This would mean increasing threats against Israel.

Former Israeli army chief of staff Dan Halutz believes that growing rejection by the Egyptian public of Camp David could take Israel back to square one, and cause it to lose all its achievements over the past decades.

One of the most important conclusions that many Israeli thinkers have reached is that the outcry by the Egyptian public against Israel limits Tel Aviv's ability to launch any more attacks or military campaigns against the Palestinians. Dore Gold, Israel's former representative to the UN and Netanyahu's former political adviser, who is now the director of the Jerusalem Centre for Israeli Research and Studies, said as much. In an article published in Israel Today on 6 September, Gold stated: "The days when Israel could carry out unrestrained military attacks on the Palestinians are gone for good. Israel realises that in light of the Arab Spring, it cannot ignore the reaction of the Arab public."

But even decision-makers in Tel Aviv who are cognizant of the extreme dangers of a fractured peace with Egypt do not intend to surrender and raise the white flag. Hence, Netanyahu and his cabinet are carrying out quiet diplomacy behind the scenes to influence Egypt's domestic political scene, and undermine the horrifying scenario that Tel Aviv fears the most. It essentially comprises of holding legislative and presidential elections amid continued anger by the masses towards Israel.

Silvan Shalom, the Israeli deputy prime minister, declared that the last thing Israel wants right now is for parliamentary or presidential elections to take place in Egypt, amid public fury against continued peace with Israel. Accordingly, Israeli television revealed on 7 September that Netanyahu is personally overseeing moves to convince the US administration to increase pressure on the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in Egypt to permanently postpone parliamentary and presidential elections.

According to the television report, the Israeli proposal was presented in several congressional circles -- especially those known to blindly support Israel -- to convince them to adopt the Israeli plan and act upon it. Israeli leaders do not make a distinction between secularists and Islamists, and several officials (such as Defence Minister Ehud Barak) even believe that some in the secular camp in Egypt are more hardline than Islamists in their anti-Israel position.

In short, Israel is feeling particularly fearful because of developments in the Arab world, especially in Egypt, with many decision-makers in Tel Aviv coming to realise that the Arab Spring spells autumn for Israel.

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