Israel and the New Middle East: The Choice between Hope and Panic - Part I

Friday, July 13, 2012 |  Elisabeth Blade

The inauguration of Muhammad Morsi in Egypt prompted a quick Israeli response: The Prime Minister rushed to congratulate the newly elected president, expressing hope that the two countries will continue to cooperate on various levels; in Cairo, Israel’s ambassador to Egypt, Yaakov Amitai, met with several top-ranking members of the Muslim Brotherhood, stressing that Jerusalem had no intention to interfere with Egypt’s domestic affairs.

This, however, masked the deep anxieties of the country’s leaders. As the flames of revolution are still raging at Israel’s doorstep, many experts voice their concerns about the impact of those events on the Jewish state.

“Israel will be facing challenges in several spheres,” said Orit Perlov, a researcher who focuses on the Arab states at the Institute of National Security Studies (INSS). “Since the epicenter of the uprisings is usually the capital or the country’s major cities, the periphery is left neglected, creating a void that is easily filled by various terrorist cells,” she continued.

Indeed, after the eruption of the popular protests that toppled the regime of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula turned into a haven for terrorist activity. In May, for example, Egyptian security forces intercepted three trucks carrying more than 40 surface-to-surface missiles, 17 rocket-propelled grenades, several mortar shell launchers, seven assault rifles with 10,000 rounds of ammunition, and surveillance equipment. Other reports indicated that Jihad Islami, a terrorist organization aimed at annihilating Israel, was establishing arms-making and logistical bases in the area, convinced that the long arm of Israel’s Defence Force (IDF) wouldn’t reach them there.

Some militants went as far as stationing long-range rockets in the region (some of which have already been fired into Israel), assuming that Jerusalem would be far less inclined to attack such sites out of concern for bilateral ties with Egypt. Others – reportedly linked to Al-Qaeda – made several attempts to infiltrate the country.

Sinai’s native population – the Bedouin tribes that comprise about 300,000 people out of the local population of 430,000 – add fuel to the fire by smuggling arms, drugs, prostitutes, and African migrants into Israel. They have also been accused of attacking Egypt’s gas pipelines pumping energy into the Jewish state (meeting some 40% of the country’s domestic demand).

All of these developments have been particularly frustrating, given the fact that in the past 30 years the 240km Israel-Sinai border remained mostly unprotected, saving both countries tens of billions of dollars in military expenditures. The situation wasn't ideal under Mubarak though, but the strong fist of the security forces presented a deterrent to those, willing to undermine stability. Now with the regime gone, many terror groups feel free to dictate their own rules.

Addressing the issue -- especially following last August’s terrorist attack that left eight Israelis dead and some 31 others wounded -- Israel decided to construct a sophisticated fence (at a considerable cost) along the entire border. The move did decrease trafficking and illegal immigration but failed to solve the problem of militants shooting into Israel, leading the IDF to beef up its presence in the area.

But apart from the high level of violence that’s been plaguing the area, Perlov said Israel would face other challenges. “An excessive flow of unsupervised weapons is streaming from Iran via Sudan, Libya and the Gaza Strip, while the populist government in Cairo lacks any basic policy to tackle the problem,” she told Israel Today. “This kind of situation bogs down the country’s economic development, which needs stability,” she stressed.

However, some Israeli politicians remain optimistic about the future of Egypt. Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Egypt would probably move towards a Turkish version of Islamic democracy, meaning Cairo would maintain a ‘cold peace’ with Jerusalem. But as tensions escalate across the border, Israel might opt for retaliation, leading to a full-fledged war.

Nevertheless, Perlov said that such a development was highly unlikely. “Egypt cannot afford a military conflict with Israel,” she reasoned. “The country’s government recognizes our superiority in this respect. Besides, they have enough headaches to cope with, including high unemployment, the ailing economy, religious and sectarian strife – to name the major issues,” she concluded.

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