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A calm but dispute-ridden debate about Egypt's real intentions toward Israel is currently occupying Israel's intelligence community. A firmer view, which ascribes to Egypt warlike intentions against Israel, is heard from the right, such as from Ministers Avigdor Lieberman and Uzi Landau, and MK Yuval Steinitz, chairman of the Knesset subcommittee of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee for defense strategy and building up the IDF.

The debate also reverberates in the corridors of the Pentagon and the U.S. State Department. There, the focus is mainly on the issue of American arms supplied to Egypt. Israel's security establishment speaks of "eroded boundaries." The weaponry that the United States supplies to the Israel Defense Forces as "arms to preserves Israel's qualitative edge" will eventually be supplied to Egypt as well. The question that disturbs Israel is why Egypt, which after its peace agreement with Israel is under no threat from any country, needs such extensive weaponry.

Prime ministers Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon each individually argued to the United States that the sales of arms to Egypt pose a danger to Israel. This month, news of a planned deal to sell North Korean No-Dong surface-to-surface missiles to Egypt became public. A senior security source said this week, "The Americans will worry about this deal; we are more concerned by other missile transactions, between the Americans and Egypt."

The Israeli defense establishment recently expressed its concerns to the American administration about the approval given to sell Egypt Harpoon missiles, which can be launched from ships and jet fighters, Standard missiles launched from ships, and especially a package of Patriot missiles. The Israeli Air Force views this as a significant upgrading of Egypt's anti-aircraft defense system.

The United States claims that the arms it supplies to Egypt are intended for defense or deterrence. But Israel is worried about the American response. The United States has made it clear that has no interest in sharing information with Israel about the military aid it supplies to Egypt. This position, along with the American insistence on equipping Egypt with advanced weaponry, is indicative of the strategic importance the United States attributes to Egypt.

And for the first time since Egypt embraced its American orientation, the question arises as to whether Egypt's weight as a strategic ally of the United States is equal to that of Israel or perhaps even greater. Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer rejects this. "The Bush administration has two interests in the Middle East: to strengthen Israel as an element that maintains stability in the Middle East and to maintain stability in Saudi Arabia." Ben-Eliezer says that although he is concerned about the growing strength of Egypt's army, in his view "it has not yet ripened."

The defense minister ascribes considerable and increasing importance to relations between Israel and Egypt. A few months ago, the chief of Egypt's general intelligence service, Omar Suleiman, arrived in Israel on a secret visit. Suleiman, 63, is viewed as a possible candidate to succeed Hosni Mubarak. He met with Ben-Eliezer to discuss the Palestinian issue and the possibility of advancing the peace process with Syria. Israel and Egypt see eye to eye on at least two very important subjects: the war on terror and the threat of Islamic fundamentalism.

The Egyptian secret

The right-leaning Ariel Center for Policy Research (ACPR) represents the view that attributes belligerent intentions to Egypt. The center recently published an analysis authored by Major Shawn Pine, a U.S. Army reserves specialist in counterintelligence. The amazing claim Pine raises in his study is that Egypt is involved in deceiving, if not outright lying, to the world about its annual defense budget.

According to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, Egypt spends $2.7 billion annually on defense (about 8.2 percent of its annual budget). Pine firmly states that Egypt's real defense expenditures are closer to $20 billion, or seven times greater than what Israel and the United States have been led to believe.

Surprisingly, Dr. Hillel Frisch of Bar-Ilan University does not completely reject Pine's claims. He believes that the truth is somewhere in the middle. MK Steinitz estimates the increase in Egypt's defense expenditures in real terms at 15 to 25 percent per year since the 1990s. All this happened alongside two processes: the Oslo agreements and a considerable decrease in Israel's defense budget in the 1990s.

Meanwhile, due to the high probability of regional deterioration and concern for the future, Military Intelligence has updated its assessments of Egyptian intentions and strengthening of its army: "Egypt today is a danger, but not a threat."

The emphasis, as explained to the defense minister and Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz, is on the word "today." President Hosni Mubarak, 73, unlike his predecessor Anwar Sadat, has not appointed a vice president and has no agreed-upon successor. Consequently, if the regime in the post-Mubarak period becomes weakened and the incitement against Israel continues, an uncontrollable situation could develop similar to the waiting period of May 1967 that preceded the Six-Day War.

Steinitz rejects Military Intelligence assessments. "To view Egypt as merely a danger is a farce. Egypt is a threat. It is preparing for possible war against Israel."

Israel's Foreign Ministry does not take Steinitz's warning seriously and is convinced that Military Intelligence's estimates are also exaggerated. Egypt, which relies on American arms, is completely and absolutely dependent on the American administration. It would lose everything if it decided to wage war on Israel. True, says the security establishment, but the unavoidable comparison is to Iran of the ayatollahs. Like Egypt, Iran of the Shah put its complete and total faith in American military support - until Khomeini's revolution came along and completely reshuffled the deck.

The Foreign Ministry's approach more clearly resembles that of a certain sector of Middle Eastern experts, of which Professor Israel Gershoni of Tel Aviv University is one of the most prominent. According to this view, the Islamic fundamentalists of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood have their source in another reality, which took root in the 1920s. Unlike the ayatollahs in Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt are Sunni rather than Shi'ite Muslims. In Egypt, the goal of the Islamics is to influence the government to follow its ways rather than to grab power.

"Israel is a threat to Egypt," says a senior diplomatic source closely following the developments in Egypt. "Egypt does not like Israel's prominence or centrality. Its leadership would like to see Israel restored to its natural dimensions - without nuclear capability and back to its 1967 borders. Even Israel's demand for democracy is perceived by the Egyptian leadership as a threat."

Egypt has always seen itself as the regional leader. Every Egyptian leader, almost as far back as the Pharaohs, has viewed Egypt as the principal leader of the entire region. "The Israeli threat," as Egypt sees it, threatens Egypt's status as No. 1 in the regional hegemony and as leader of the Arab world, according to some in the Foreign Ministry and the defense establishment. This explains its paternalistic approach toward the Palestinians and the link it created between Israel's peace agreement with Egypt and the resolution of the Palestinian problem.

Even Egypt's opposition to deepening its economic cooperation with Israel is linked to its hypersensitivity about its regional status. Joint ventures may be good for the economy, but strengthening ties with Israel could set Egypt apart from the Arab countries it so deeply aspires to lead.

This also explains Egypt's opposition to Shimon Peres' vision of a New Middle East. Globalization and economic entrepreneurship give Israel a clear advantage, while undercutting Egypt's position as leader of the Middle East in the new age. Egypt's increased military might stems from the same need. "Since the peace agreements with Egypt, there are security-minded forces in Israel that claim that Egypt's rearming is aimed against Israel," says a leading Middle East expert, but hedges that remark: "But Mubarak needs a strong army for internal reasons too. Without a large strong army, he and his regime will not last long."

Egypt arming itself with American weapons also has an ironic aspect. It was carried out with the full agreement and support of two right-wing prime ministers - Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir. That approach was based on the awareness that the purpose of the Egyptian army was to protect Egypt and deter its enemies.

But the dispute between Israel's defense establishment and the American administration today, almost 20 years after the "American revolution" in the Egyptian military, concerns the Egyptian army's capability. "The Americans," says a senior IDF source, "assess the capability of Egypt today and in the future as less than ours. They say that the sum total of the capability of the Egyptian army, including the element of defense and the ability to exert power, is low. But we say that there is a positive link between capability and ambition. The higher the capability, the greater the ambition. And looking 20 years ahead, there's reason for concern."

Behind this dispute lies in even deeper argument. Will the United States continue to maintain Israel's qualitative edge? "That's what the whole argument is about," says the IDF source. "We have a qualitative edge. The question is by how much. The Americans say that it's convincing enough and will remain so in the future. We want it to be decisive. We are not concerned by tanks or other capabilities, but rather by certain types of missiles that the United States is selling Egypt."

Military might

Since the signing of the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt in March 1979, the United States has supplied Egypt with military equipment and weapons systems to the tune of $36 billion, states the American Federation of Scientists. Like Israel and on the same basis, Egypt receives annual military grants and non-military grants. The annual grants Egypt receives, totaling $2 billion, is the second largest foreign aid allocation provided by the United States. It includes $1.3 billion for military aid and $700 million for non-military aid. Only the grant given to Israel - $2.04 billion for defense and $720 million for nonmilitary aid - is greater.

But that is only part of the aid that Egypt receives. Thanks to its contribution in establishing the coalition headed by the United States against Iraq in the Gulf War, the United States erased Egyptian debts totaling $7.1 billion. Additionally, Egypt received two other weapons systems from the Pentagon with an estimated value of hundreds of millions of dollars a year. The United States recently equipped two battalions of the Egyptian army with MLRS artillery rockets with a range of 40 kilometers.

And in the Abrams tank factory (M1-A1) established in Egypt, hundreds of tanks are currently being manufactured, in addition to the 555 tanks of this type which are already in the service of the Egyptian armored corps. By the end of 2007, the Egyptian armored corps will have 750 Abrams tanks. The defense establishment defines this as "critical mass."

These tanks are sufficient to outfit two armored divisions. Each tank is equipped with a 1500-horsepower engine, compared to Israel's Merkava 3, which is equipped with a 1200-horsepower engine. But tanks are not measured by horsepower alone. Performance is measured in navigability, survivability and firepower.

The Egyptian Air Force has also been beefed up. Like in Israel, the Lockheed Martin F-16 has become the backbone of the Egyptian Air Force. So far, the United States has supplied Egypt with 224 of its newest model F-16s. Another reason for concern is the joint exercises the Egyptian Army holds with American and other NATO armies. The exercises allow Egypt to see Western commanders in action. In all of the large exercises held by the Egyptians, the reference threat was Israel.

"So what?" says Brigadier General (Res.) Shlomo Brom, former deputy of the IDF's planning division and today a researcher at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies. "Like any other country, Egypt is taking changes in the Middle East into account and the fact that it might be involved in a war against Israel. Just like Israel must take that into account. We too have contingency plans for war with everybody. That is the job of the general staff."

At a discussion held by the subcommittee headed by Steinitz, concern was expressed for the growing strength of the Egyptian Navy, which numbers about 60 vessels. In an internal discussion recently held with the participation of army officers, a distinction was made between a fleet whose job it is to protect the country's beaches and a fleet with the capability of fighting in the open sea. Egypt, it was said, has developed the capability of its fleet to act in "deep waters." This means that the Egyptian Navy, now equipped with Harpoon and Standard missiles, could soon pose a threat to shipping routes and could act against targets hundreds of kilometers away from its home port.

The Egyptian army numbers about 450,000 soldiers with a reserves force of about 600,000 additional men. The Americans are convinced that the only question that needs clarification is what the Egyptians' real intentions are. On the question of intentions, unlike that of capabilities, there is full agreement between the American and Israeli defense establishments.

The test of intentions

On July 23, the Egyptian Embassy celebrated the Egyptian Independence Day. The party in Israel was held at the Daniel Hotel on the Herzliya beachfront, as usual. The place of longtime Egyptian Ambassador Mohammed Bassiouny, who was recalled to Egypt soon after the outbreak of violence in the territories, was filled by his deputy and current charge d'affaires Ihab Sharif. "What will happen if Egypt is drawn into war?" Sharif was asked. His answer, as quoted in the Egyptian press, was, "Don't even think about that possibility. We are peaceful people; we don't want to speak about war."

Similar comments were made a week later by Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher at a meeting with Egyptian youth. He said, "We are in a difficult and very dangerous position ... but war resolves nothing." However, Egyptian Defense Minister Mohammed Tantawi said that if there were to be a situation of war against Israel, Egypt is ready and its army is not inferior. However, Israel believes that these statements are for internal consumption.

Israel is keeping close track of Mubarak's visits to army bases and command posts accompanied by senior army officers, where he tells the soldiers how important peace is. War, it is believed in Israel, in not in his interest. With all his criticism, the Egyptian president speaks of "an Arab strategy for peace." A week ago, during a visit to Washington, his political adviser Osama Al Baz repeated these words and added that even during a serious crisis, Egypt would not send troops into the Sinai.

Egypt, under Mubarak's leadership, is viewed as an island of stability. The problem is with his media. On August 2, the Internet edition of the Egyptian newspaper Al-Akhbar contained an inflammatory article by Anwar Mohammed. "Will the situation in Jerusalem lead to a new war in the Middle East? Is it possible for a sixth war to break out between the Arabs and Israel? The answer is simply yes. This war could break out suddenly, despite the fact that Egypt declared that the 1973 war was the last one, and has taken such great strides in the direction of peace so far."

Two days later, the daily Al-Gomhuria wrote that Egypt does not rule out war against Israel. A random selection of articles and headlines from the Egyptian press points to a uniform line of hatred and incitement toward Israel. The Israeli security establishment and Foreign Ministry distinguish between the Egyptian press and the government. But the question, as it is presented in internal debates, is: "Could it reach a point where the government can no longer contain the press? To what extent could a volcanic eruption of incitement draw Egypt into war?"