When Netanyahu and Barak keep silent, Lieberman starts to talk
Security coordination with Egypt has seemed very good, though as the Sinai continues to heat up, the otherwise vocal Prime Minister has kept quiet on the subject.
In an article published last Thursday in Haaretz I discussed the Egyptian deployment of military forces in the Sinai Peninsula, without prior coordination with Israel, as part of its campaign against Islamic terrorists. At the time, no Israeli was prepared to make an official response. The answers I got on the matter – both from the security establishment and from the Prime Minister’s Office – were opaque. For example, the Prime Minister’s Office responded as follows: “Israel and Egypt are in constant touch about all issues relevant to both nations.”
The answer was understandable at that point. In recent months security coordination with Egypt has seemed good, even very good, and this also continued to be true after the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate, Mohamed Morsi, was elected president. The echelons operating in the field maintain continuous contact, so do many members of the Israeli security establishment and the Egyptian intelligence agencies. No one has wanted to create a brouhaha liable to damage the very delicate relations between the countries.
But in the following six days, the international and Egyptian fronts have been in overdrive, while Israel continued to maintain an odd silence. It started with criticisms of Israel by senior Egyptian sources along the lines of “What do you want from us? We’re only fighting terrorism.” It went on with right-wing Knesset members hopping on the bandwagon to demand that Israel tell Egypt to stop taking unilateral action.
And it continues: Dennis Ross, former adviser to President Obama, has called on the administration to link continued economic assistance to Egypt with ending the violations of the peace treaty with Israel; the Israeli media have been having a field day over the affair; and on Tuesday evening, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland called on Egypt to cooperate and continue coordination with Israel in keeping with the peace treaty.
Only Israel continues to keep silent. The Egyptian and Palestinian media are supercharging the atmosphere, though it isn’t at all clear what is going on in the Sinai, mostly because of the vow of silence apparently taken by the Israelis (who otherwise are notable for their over-fondness for making media declarations): How big a violation has Egypt committed? Does it threaten Israel? Have the Egyptians deployed in the Sinai entire brigades that are liable to “get stuck” there afterwards? Does the Israeli public need to be concerned about the potential opening of another front?
Some of these questions can be easily answered, if only in order to inject some calm into the discussion. Yet the all-clear siren and clarifications from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak tarry. And so, in their stead, we got Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman – who can always be relied upon to heat up any situation – telling senior Israeli diplomats: “We have to be insistent with the Egyptians and be strict about crossing every last ‘t,’ because otherwise we will be on a slippery slope regarding everything related to the peace agreement.”
I can only guess that today these statements will be given prominence in the strident Egyptian media, which have aligned themselves unquestioningly with the Muslim Brotherhood. One can only hope that a moment before Lieberman (who may be right, but doesn’t have any solution to offer) repeats his unfortunate 2001 comment about bombing the Aswan Dam in case of a war with Egypt, Barak and Netanyahu will step in and restore some calm both by making official contact with Egypt and by addressing the Israeli public.