Israel has wisely remained largely silent on developments in Syria and Egypt. But on Egypt, its most populous and powerful neighbor, Israel made its preferences perfectly clear to the U.S. and Europe. The Israeli perspective is strictly security-driven – and that means keeping Islamist governments at bay and the post-Morsi, military-backed government in the Western orbit.
Unexpectedly, Israel has partners: Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States (excluding Qatar, which is still supporting the Muslim Brotherhood), Jordan and the Palestinian Authority were all dismayed by the Brotherhood’s ascendancy and now want to prevent a recurrence. None of them want the U.S. to halt military aid to the new government, notwithstanding its brutality. In Washington the debate continues, sidelined by the latest crisis over Syria’s use of chemical weapons.
Israel is specifically concerned about an inter-related triangle of issues – the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip. It needs Egypt for all three.
The cornerstone is the 1979 treaty, described at the time as “taking the road to Washington through Jerusalem” for Anwar Sadat, who sought a strategic shift in Egypt’s position. (He was assassinated by Islamist terrorists in 1981.) The U.S. paid in military and other aid – now marked at $1.3-billion annually – in return for the promise of security co-operation while barely acknowledging domestic violations of human rights. For Israel, the treaty is a key plank of its strategic planning. Thirty years of quiet on the Egyptian front and close intelligence co-operation has facilitated military action against sub-state actors and terrorism.
While in power, Mohamed Morsi indicated the treaty would be respected, but ominous security threats along the Israel-Gaza-Sinai border only accelerated. Now, Israel is counting on a response from the coup’s leader, Defence Minister Gen. Abdel Fatah el-Sissi.
The Sinai is crawling with jihadi groups that pose a threat to Israel, Egypt and the region generally. Underscoring this, Israel’s General Security Service Shin Bet has a new unit dealing specifically with preventing attacks from Gaza through the Sinai. The 15 active groups comprise a mix of veteran and new radicalized Bedouins, Salafist Muslims, al-Qaeda operatives and wanted men from Gaza. Despite treaty limits on Egypt’s use of military force in the Sinai, Israel has repeatedly acceded to Egyptian requests for more armed presence there, including, most recently, the entry of two Egyptian infantry battalions.
Closely linked to the Sinai threat is Gaza. A weakened Muslim Brotherhood means a weakened Hamas – a shared Israeli and Egyptian interest. Egypt is fuming at the protection Hamas is offering jihadi leaders seeking cover, while Hamas is reeling from the shutdown of tunnels used to smuggle goods and weapons from Sinai to Gaza, and the draconian restrictions on access through the Rafah crossing, the main Egyptian gateway for Gazans seeking to travel.
Western-style democracy isn’t coming fast to Egypt; and both the U.S. and Israel have learned the hard way they can’t seriously influence regime change. Through its friends in Washington, Israel is lobbying for the status quo – including military aid – to continue, and arguing correctly that stability in Egypt is presently more important than values. Sanctions against the Egyptian military – in spite of its overthrow of an elected Muslim government – will work counter to American interests.
If Kosovo is being looked at as a precedent for intervention in Syria, the Turkish democratic-Islamic model can be looked at as an eventual political outcome for Egypt. But in the meantime, as Robert Satloff of The Washington Institute wrote recently, “doing nothing” is often as important as “ doing something.”