Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 August - 5 September 2012
Issue No. 1112
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Walls in between

Tension between Egypt and Israel goes well beyond incidents at the countries' borders, writes Dina Ezzat

Click to view caption
Operation Eagle was launched in Sinai after the deadly attack that killed 16 Egyptian border guards in early August

"The peace treaty [between Egypt and Israel] is unlikely to be open for revision now -- highly unlikely. We have not asked for it, and I don't think that if we asked the Israelis or the Americans would agree to it, at least not for now," said an Egyptian military source who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly on condition of anonymity.

According to this and other government officials, all the "issues" that have been reported in the Israeli press recently over upgrades to Egyptian military deployments in Sinai beyond the limits allowed in the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, which only grants Egypt a modest police presence and no army presence in the strip on the borders with Israel, have been fully thought out.

It has been made clear to the Israelis, the military source said, that the presence of Egyptian soldiers in Sinai will not persist beyond Operation Eagle, a military operation launched after the deadly attack that killed 16 Egyptian border guards early in August.

PRESIDENT MURSI AND OPERATION EAGLE: In fact, Operation Eagle has been designed to meet objectives that Israel has been asking for during the 20 months since the 25 January Revolution toppled former president Hosni Mubarak, said to be one of Israel's favourite leaders in the region.

These objectives include clearing Sinai of the militant Islamist groups that have been trying to take control of the peninsula and turn it into a launching pad for operations against Israel, at times in cooperation with elements from the Israel-besieged Gaza Strip.

Since Mubarak was toppled in February 2011, repeated attacks have damaged the gas pipeline that takes natural gas from Egypt to Israel. Israel had complained about these to Egypt and to the US, as well as about what it calls the "mushrooming presence" of Islamist militants in Sinai. It has issued several warnings to its citizens to avoid travelling to Sinai, the last of them on the eve of the Rafah attack.

In a letter to the UN Security Council, unprecedented since the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty in 1979, Israel complained about what it called the "failed Sinai". The letter criticised the management of Sinai on the part of the former ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), and it was made public after the announcement of the results of the first round of the presidential elections, which led to the Muslim Brotherhood frontrunner, Mohamed Mursi, and Mubarak's last prime minister, Ahmed Shafik, making it to the run-offs.

"Clearly, this letter was a prelude to the arrival of Mursi in power, and it was one of the clearest signs that Israel suspected that Mursi would be Egypt's next president," said one Cairo-based Western diplomat. According to the diplomat, if Israel feared that Mursi would win, then this was an indication that Mursi really would win in the elections, as indeed he later did.

"Part of the reason for the uncalled-for and exaggerated fuss that Israel has been making about Egyptian movements in Sinai," the military source said, has been because Mursi is now Egypt's president.

During the last years of Mubarak's rule, the Egyptian military conducted operations in Sinai against militants and drug and human-trafficking networks, though these did not involve military deployments on the scale of those seen in Operation Eagle.

"The fact of the matter is that the Israelis trusted Mubarak, but they don't know how to deal with Mursi. They know that he is too sensible to make any military mistakes, and they have received endless assurances from the Muslim Brotherhood, some directly, that there is no intention to annul the peace treaty. However, they are still apprehensive, as the arrival of Mursi to power has been Israel's worst-case scenario," said one Egyptian diplomat.

A MATTER OF SOVEREIGNTY: For Amin Iskandar, an Egyptian politician and member of the prematurely dissolved 2011 parliament, the matter has little to do with Mursi and a lot more to do with the text of the treaty itself.

"Clearly, the text of the treaty undermines Egypt's sovereignty over Sinai. This is not a matter for debate: what we have to do sooner or later is to fix the treaty to remove this aspect of it. We have the right to call for amendments to it," Iskandar, a leftist, said.

In press statements on Operation Eagle, Yasser Ali, the presidential spokesman, has said that Egypt is "exercising its sovereign right over Sinai" by acting against the Islamist militants and other elements on the peninsula.

Iskandar is only one of many who claim that Egypt's sovereignty over Sinai is "assumed", but is not necessarily a matter of fact. "You cannot realistically claim to have sovereignty over your land, full sovereignty that is, when you cannot deploy troops to arrest law breakers on it," Iskandar said.

Iskandar's concerns were raised with late president Anwar El-Sadat during the negotiations for the Peace Treaty by top diplomatic and political aides. Two of Sadat's foreign ministers, Ismail Fahmi and Mohamed Ibrahim Kamel, resigned for this same reason -- that the treaty as eventually signed vitiated Egyptian sovereignty in Sinai.

Nabil El-Arabi, the current Arab League secretary-general, was a relatively junior diplomat at the time the treaty was signed, and he also remembers tough encounters with the president over the matter.

Sadat, who, according to his wife Jihan El-Sadat, thought that the treaty would only be a "starting point" and that deficiencies would be fixed once the fruits of peace had been made plain, insisted on signing the treaty as it was despite the problems in it, hoping that once the "psychological war" between the Egyptians and Israelis had passed the details of the treaty would also resolve themselves.

For Iskandar, "the treaty undermines Egypt's rights. It gives Israel the upper hand in administering the Egyptian-Israeli relationship when it comes to Sinai, and it has to be revisited." This task will be a priority for the new parliament once it has been elected, he said, "especially since Egypt is going to go through a phase of modifying its foreign policy as part of the post-revolution phase".

THE FOREIGN POLICY PARAMETERS: In the view of aides and advisors to President Mursi, who prefer to speak on condition of anonymity, reworking Egypt's foreign policy parameters is something that the first-ever civilian and freely elected president of Egypt will get round to, the only question is when.

It seems likely that re-working the parameters of Egyptian-Israeli relations will be a priority of this overall re-working of the country's foreign policy.

However, according to Hassan Abu Taleb, a senior researcher at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, Mursi is unlikely dramatically to re-work Egypt's relations with its former enemy. This has nothing to do with Mursi, or for that matter with his status as the first-ever legitimately elected president or as a president who comes from the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose criticisms of the peace treaty have been hard to overstate, Abu Taleb said.

"The balance of relations between Egypt and Israel is what really decides the nature of Egyptian thinking on the peace treaty," Abu Taleb said. For Egypt to change this relationship, it would have to revisit the whole nature of the relations between the two countries, including in economic, scientific and cultural terms. Any such rethinking would be a major undertaking and would take a considerable amount of time.

According to Egyptian diplomats who have dealt with Egyptian-Israeli relations over the past three decades, Abu Taleb's arguments are valid. They argue that in essence little has changed in the management of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty from the day it was signed in the spring of 1979 to this week, when military representatives of both sides finalised the details of operations conducted in Sinai to round up the suspected militants and instigators of the Rafah attack.

"In the 1990s, when Amr Moussa was foreign minister, people used to think that Egypt had changed its policy towards Israel, but in fact this was not the case. These perceptions had more to do with Moussa's style, as he chose to present Egypt's positions in a way that was less accepting in style than the way chosen by his predecessors and successors," one Egyptian diplomat said.

The diplomat added that unlike some of his successors, who have made the Palestinian cause and Egypt's involvement in it a bargaining chip to serve Egypt's interests, "Moussa tried to maximise Egypt's clout and put it at the service of the Palestinian cause, also eventually serving Egypt's interests as a leading regional player."

According to the diplomat, it would be "unfair" to argue that Mubarak, dubbed "the treasure" by some Israeli officials, had been the architect of Israeli supremacy in bilateral ties between Cairo and Tel Aviv. However, he added, "as Mubarak embarked on the project of succession [of power to his younger son Gamal Mubarak], he was consciously bowing to Israel in order to win it over to this plan, and thus win over the US."

Israeli "supremacy is in the text of the treaty itself. It was not Mubarak's doing," said another Egyptian diplomat. "It was Sadat's doing, and the responsibility of [former president] Gamal Abdel-Nasser, who was solely responsible for the [1967] defeat that allowed Israel to occupy Sinai."

Following the 1967 war, Egypt lost much of its political and economic clout, and this set the stage for a shift in parameters. Today, diplomats argue that it would take as dramatic a political move as the outcome of the 1967 war, this time on the positive side, for the parameters to shift again.

For Wahid Abdel-Meguid, a member of the committee charged with drafting a new Egyptian constitution, the issue is precisely one of Egypt's status rather than the text of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.

The text of the treaty is a by-product of Egypt's declining status, he said. "Once Egypt has regained its status, things will change," he added. Meanwhile, things will remain more or less the same, according to analysts and diplomats alike.

THE THIRD ELEMENT: Abu Taleb refers to the "American element" in the Egyptian-Israeli relationship, with the US clearly being on the side of Israel. "We cannot overlook the fact that in many ways this relationship is a three-way relationship," he said.

By virtue of the US-sponsored Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, Egypt has been receiving economic and military aid from the US. Deep concerns regarding Egypt's freedom of choice have been related to this aid, along with the perception that Israel could use its influence with Washington to delay or reduce it.

"Every time Israel complains to the US about the smuggling of weapons into Gaza from Sinai through the illicit tunnels, the Americans immediately bombard us with twice as many complaints," said one Egyptian diplomat who has served in Washington.

Only three years ago, following US proposals, Egypt agreed to build an underground metal wall to block Gazans, suffering under a suffocating Israeli siege, from smuggling everything from medicine and baby-formula to arms and militants into and out of the Strip and to and from Egypt.

According to some informed officials, this metal wall is still in place, and following the Rafah attack that involved the violation of the borders, extra measures are being considered to secure the borders between Egypt and Gaza, said to have been the origin of some of the Rafah assailants.

Moreover, informed military and diplomatic sources insist that it was upon the advice of the US that Egypt made no criticism of an Israeli decision, taken a couple of years ago, to build a fence on Israeli territory on the borders with Egypt.

MIND BARRIERS: According to Abdel-Alim Mohamed, an expert on Egyptian-Israeli relations at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, these are not the only walls involved in the Egyptian-Israeli relationship. "The psychological wall that Sadat had promised to break down is still very much there," he said.

For many Egyptians, including those who firmly oppose any war with Israel, "Israel is still the enemy."

"Of course Israel is the enemy," said Hussein, a grocery deliveryman. "The Israelis want to occupy all Arab land. They killed our fathers and our grandfathers, and they would kill us if they could in order to take over our country as well," he said.

Hussein, who went through high school, is in his early 20s, and he was born long after Sadat was assassinated in 1981. He has no personal recollection of the Egyptian-Israeli wars. Due to an Egyptian decision to stop broadcasting material related to the Israeli aggression on Egypt and other Arab countries, Hussein has not been brought up to think of Israel as an enemy, to which members of the older generations may subscribe, yet he still does so.

Hussein is not a unique case. During the demonstrations against the rule of the SCAF after the fall of Mubarak last year, demonstrators gathered outside the Israeli embassy in Giza in order to protest against an Israeli attack on the borders with Egypt that left one soldier dead.

One demonstrator climbed up to the ninth floor of the building housing the embassy and took down the Israeli flag to the cheers of a huge crowd.

Following that, and because of Israeli complaints, the Egyptian authorities built a wall to protect the Israeli embassy building. This wall was later torn down by demonstrators who forced the Israeli embassy to evict the building it had used since the first ambassador arrived in Egypt to present his accreditation to Sadat after 1979.

The demolition of the Giza wall and the limited Egyptian-Israeli economic normalisation are evidence that the "psychological wall" has not fallen, Mohamed said.

According to one entrepreneur who did business with Israel a few years ago, "there is almost a stigma about doing business with Israel. Your friends and associates look at you as if you were a spy, and it does not matter that every day they read news reports about the visits of Israeli officials to Egypt. The general perception is that relations with Israel are something for officials only," he said.

Due to the limited interest of the Egyptian business community in approaching Israeli counterparts, and with Egypt soliciting American approval to start negotiating a Free Trade Agreement to encourage, some might say push, Egypt into agreeing something it has long backed away from, Qualified Industrial Zones (QIZs) have been set up on the basis of a three-way arrangement that allows Egyptian exports free access to the American market if they have an Israeli element of around 10 per cent.

This arrangement was part of a deal put forward by the Regional Economic Development Working Group, an off-shoot of the Madrid Peace Process in the mid-1990s that was designed to promote Israeli integration into the Arab countries.

Such arrangements included cooperation in the economy, environment, water, refugees and arms control. However, this so-called "multilateral track" of the otherwise bilateral peace negotiations was short-lived due to the hiccups that attended the peace process itself.

In the reading of one retired Egyptian diplomat, the decision of Mubarak to give the go ahead to the QIZs "had much more to do with his wish to solicit Israeli favours than with Egypt's direct economic needs."

"It was part of a package that included the QIZs and the notorious gas export deal," he said, adding that "this deal was negotiated away from the official bodies concerned and was initiated by the direct orders of the president, who was giving away everything in order to promote his succession scenario."

The sale of Egyptian natural gas to Israel was demanded by Israel in the early 1990s. At the time, some cabinet ministers suggested that the matter should be examined carefully, as Egypt's interest was to use the gas to generate electricity in Arish, near the Israeli border, and not to export it to Israel.

"The concept we argued for was to export the product, electricity, and not the raw material, the natural gas, which would have led to greater revenues and would have helped develop Sinai," said one diplomat involved in the discussion at the time.

However, Mubarak decided to export the natural gas at what was labelled a much cheaper price than the market price. A group of critics went to court during Mubarak's rule in order to try to stop the exports, but to no avail, and it was not until the end of Mubarak's rule that those involved in the deal were penalised and the exports suspended.

Israel, officials say, was "upset" about the matter, but it has been careful not to make a major fuss. In the words of one official, "with an Islamist president in power in Egypt, Israel is keeping an eye on Mursi since it wants him to stick to the peace treaty."

Abdel-Alim agrees. "The arrival of Mursi to power has been Israel's worst nightmare. The Israelis are still formulating their new policy on Egypt, but for now they want to keep things stable."

A COLD PEACE GETS COLDER: Israel has long complained about what it calls the "cold peace" with Egypt. Western diplomats in Cairo have endless stories to tell about the sense of rejection that their Israeli counterparts complain about in Egypt. Israeli diplomats have tried hard to solicit Egyptian guests to visit their country, for example, even under conditions of secrecy. They have tried to get invited to cultural events even in a personal capacity, and they have tried to be seated next to an Egyptian guest at a dinner given by an American or other Western diplomat.

Today, Abdel-Alim says, Israel is prepared to move from the present cold peace to "a colder one, but they will take a little while to do so."

The peace is likely to get colder, officials say, not just because Mursi is an Islamist politician with little taste for receiving Israeli officials on a regular basis as his predecessor used to do, but also because the Americans are not pushing too hard for anything different, at least not for now.

"The Americans are tip-toeing around Mursi for the moment. They want to win him over because they are afraid of mismanaging relations with Egypt as they did with Iran after the Iranian revolution," said another Egyptian diplomat.

He added that Washington and Tel Aviv were worried about the choices Mursi could make. Today's arrival of Mursi in Tehran on a ground-breaking diplomatic mission towards the number one regional enemy of Washington and Tel Aviv is also worrying, even if the mission lasts for less than 24 hours and is part of the summit of the Non-Aligned Movement.

The US is equally worried about Egypt's moving East rather than West. The trip that took Mursi to Beijing this week and a subsequent visit to Kuala-Lumpur have also been objects of concern in Washington, according to Egyptian sources.

Meanwhile, it is unlikely that Egypt will re-engage any time soon in the peace talks between the Palestinians and Israelis, mainly due to Israeli policies towards the Palestinians that have made it almost impossible for any peace talks to be conducted.

Egypt also has pressing issues at home to deal with. "For now, there is no peace process to talk about, and there are no bilateral matters to discuss beyond the level of the foreign and defence ministers. No Israeli officials are expected in Cairo any time soon," said a presidential official.

The same official said that Mursi was not scheduled to meet any Israeli officials in New York on the margins of his participation at the UN General Assembly in September. However, if he "runs into some, he will of course act courteously."

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