Israel must be prepared for future confrontation with Egypt, says ex-Defense Minister
In a wide-ranging interview with TheMarker, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer says ties with Egypt must be maintained at all costs.
In the summer of 2005, Israeli-Egyptian relations were rosy. Sitting around a conference table one day were executives from the Israel Electric Corporation and the Egyptian-Israeli East Mediterranean Gas Company. Sitting across from them were Egypt's petroleum minister and his Israeli counterpart, fresh from their meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Facing the cameras, which captured their visible excitement, the two signed off on the agreement that would bring Egyptian natural gas flowing into Israel.
Last week the optimism of that sunny summer day dissolved completely. The $500-million gas pipeline running through the Sinai peninsula was sabotaged 14 times in as many months. The IEC stands at the edge of a financial abyss. EMG is falling apart. The moribund Mubarak is waiting to be convicted of killing his own people. Egypt's former petroleum minister, Sameh Fahmy, was arrested on suspicion of government corruption. His erstwhile Israeli counterpart, former Defense Minister and National Infrastructures Minister, and current Labor Party MK Benjamin "Fouad" Ben-Eliezer, made a miraculous recovery a year ago from a virulent bacterial infection of his lungs, only to watch the collapse of the edifice he had worked so carefully to build.
"I felt a pang in my heart," Ben-Eliezer told TheMarker, speaking about the collapse of the natural gas deal. "Egypt is a pivotal state for Israel. People have no idea of its significance. It was the stabilizing force of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates and in effect controlled the Arab League. Its loss will be a very big blow to us. From now on it will be a completely different story. The (Egyptian ) army is weakening, losing its autonomy to the benefit of the government. That is bad for us. It is vital that we maintain the relationship with Egypt at any price."
The first Egyptian gas arrived in Ashkelon on May 1, 2008. "The gas contract reinforced the peace treaty, and was therefore historic primarily on account of its strategic implications, and only afterward on account of its economic implications." But no one who has been listening to the remarks of Israeli cabinet ministers over the past week would come to that conclusion. The message dictated by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is: The suspension of gas delivery is not the result of political developments; it is, in effect, a business dispute between an Israeli company and an Egyptian company.
Both states signed off as guarantors of the gas contract, explains Ben-Eliezer. "I saw in that agreement the most important added value for the State of Israel, because what is the significance of the peace treaty by itself? Nothing. It has no meaning, it is merely a non-belligerence agreement."
How do you explain Bibi's PR argument?
"Bibi, with some justification, wishes for himself a situation in which relations with Egypt continue as they are. He is doing the right thing. I too would be very happy were a way to be found to renew the relationship between Egypt and EMG, and to also talk about a new gas contract and new prices. But if we look at the declarations of all the Egyptian presidential candidates we find there isn't one who does not speak of his intention to cancel the gas project after he is elected."
In other words, the Egyptian decision to cancel the gas contract is political?
"Absolutely political. There is no way for the gas pipeline to be turned off without the approval of the political leadership. On the other hand, it must be remembered that this is a temporary transitional government, so we must wait and see what the permanent government does. Bibi talks about us being a natural gas superpower, and it's true. But despite our power, I want to maintain the gas contract (with Egypt ) at any price, because of its importance in reinforcing the peace.
"When I learned of the cancelation, I made a statement I later regretted, that in essence the last link in the peace between us and Egypt had been broken. I see the Middle East as more religious, more Islamic, more anti-Israel, while the rest of the world is on a delegitimization campaign against us, while itself coping with difficult problems. I don't see the Middle East settling down over the next three or four years.
"Voices of opposition to the Egyptian-Israeli natural gas project first surfaced four years ago, and they took a practical turn immediately after the fall of the Mubarak regime, in February of last year, whether through grassroots calls for its cancelation, through the hunt launched against figures involved in it in Egypt or by bombing the Sinai pipeline."
In 2005 you saw a small number of people profiting personally from the gas contract, while at the same time there was no improvement for the millions of poor farmers in the Egyptian Delta. You didn't think it would fall apart eventually?
"As a cabinet minister, I make one single calculation - the good of my country. Israel was looking to get natural gas as quickly as possible, so I traveled between Moscow, Turkey and Egypt. I met with [Vladimir] Putin, and twice with the CEO of [Russian gas giant] Gazprom. I built a friendly relationship with Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and with his petroleum minister. I didn't make socioeconomic calculations for an entire nation, but instead, I was interested only in the speed with which I could build the gas pipeline between Sinai and Ashkelon."
And that's ethical?
"Yes. You must always ask yourself which value you put first, and in my eyes reinforcing the peace was a supreme value. The gas contract was with Yossi Maiman's EMG. I didn't care about anything except laying the pipeline, and I was not involved in any of the financial negotiations."
Had you listened two years ago to Jordan's King Abdullah, perhaps you would have recognized that the gas project was viewed negatively by the Egyptian people.
"There was a reason why I said that even while talking, we must also be prepared for war. Look at what's happening in Sinai. There are already factories for making missiles and giant warehouses of explosives and rifles. The area today includes all the known terror organizations in the Middle East as well as serving as a base for the sabotage activities of the Bedouin shabab [Arabic term for youths with too much time on their hands]."
Is Sinai a lost cause?
"The best period for Sinai and the Bedouin who inhabit it was when Israel controlled it. Businesses flourished, tourism was at its peak, the fishing was unrestricted. Sinai today is a powder keg. There's chaos there."
So what's the solution?
"I very much hope that the new Egyptian government will get on its feet and get back to being in charge there, but the question is who will control the presidency - The Salafis? The Muslim Brotherhood? Because the protest has not calmed down. It is still there, and it is not dying down."
Is the peace agreement already a dead letter?
"On the time axis, [we] must be prepared for the possibility of a confrontation with Egypt. I hope I am wrong, and I would like nothing more than for the next [Egyptian] government to want to sit down with us. If I were a consultant to the next Egyptian president I would tell him to maintain the peace agreement at any price; first, because every year it gives him $2 billion in U.S. aid and second, because he will be incapable of spending a fortune on readying the army for confrontation, while the nation is crying. Egypt has 85 million people, and a third of them earn less than $2 per day."
What would you advise him with regard to the natural gas contract?
"To carry through with it. Otherwise there will only be the peace treaty on paper, and I also want good neighborly relations, security coordination and embassies. In my eyes the gas pipeline is as important as the peace agreement."
Why do you think Fahmy and Mubarak's sons, with whom you signed the gas contract, arrested?
"Am I an expert on corruption? Does it seem likely to you that if I were getting a monthly payment from Egypt the Mossad wouldn't hear about it?"
Former Mossad chief Shabtai Shavit also received $11 million from Maiman for services rendered [after he retired].
"And in one payment," (Ben-Eliezer says, laughing ).
You recently bought an apartment in Jaffa for NIS 9 million.
"And in a rare step, I submitted a detailed account of all the sources of the payment, including the mortgage I intend to apply for."
If every possible stone in the matter of the gas project were to be overturned, would you come out of it looking good?
"I'd come out of it a prince. The rest of them? I have no idea. My guess is that no official Israeli [individual or agency] is involved, and I don't believe that any Israeli element got its hands dirty over it. It's hard for me to believe that I wouldn't have heard about it by now. I have got wind of many different things that were checked immediately."
Are you still in close contact with any of the Egyptians?
"In the past I was in touch with General [Mohamed Hussein] Tantawi [commander-in-chief of the Egyptian Armed Forces, chairman of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and defense minister], but that has faded too. Any ties to Israel are bad for them, and they are very sensitive to what is happening here. Every word that appears in our press is immediately translated for Cairo."