"Israel should know that the era in which our sons are killed without a harsh response on our part is over for good," said Amr Moussa, a former secretary general of the Arab League who is now a candidate for president of Egypt. The former International Atomic Energy Agency director general, Mohamed El Baradei, who is also running for president, rushed to add his reaction, demanding a committee of inquiry that would quickly issue findings.
The case of the terrorist attack on the Israeli border highway north of Eilat doesn't have an impact just on security cooperation between Israel and Egypt. It goes to the very heart of Egyptian politics. In Israel, the Egyptian reaction is seen as somewhat confused; early Saturday morning, the media received a detailed announcement that included a section in which it was stated explicitly that Egypt had decided to recall its ambassador from Israel, only to be followed hours later by a government statement that the earlier information was mistaken. In Egypt, on the other hand, the new regime was compared to the prior regime of President Hosni Mubarak.
One of the public accusations directed at Mubarak after he was overthrown was that he demonstrated weakness vis-a-vis Israel by cooperating with it against the Palestinians and by damaging Egypt's prestige. Now the Egyptian government and supreme military council must demonstrate that they are taking a "national stand" in the face of what is being seen as an Israeli attack on Egyptian soldiers. No less damaging from a political standpoint is the comparison that senior Israeli officials, including Defense Minister Ehud Barak, have made between Mubarak's capacity to control Sinai and what has been termed the incompetence of the new Egyptian regime.
In Egypt, people are at pains to point out that there were serious terrorist attacks on the Sinai peninsula between 2004 and 2006 and that even under Mubarak, the Egyptian ambassador to Israel was recalled twice: at the time of the first Lebanon war and during the second intifada.
The Egyptian government is showing great sensitivity to the demands of the Egyptian public and is making great effort to fashion itself as totally different from the prior regime, but it is also committed to the peace accords and to security cooperation with Israel. Egypt sought permission from Israel (which was granted ) to move roughly 1,000 more troops into Sinai, beyond what the peace agreement allows, along with tanks and other armored vehicles to fight radical organizations on the peninsula. And given that the fight against infiltrators between Egypt and the Gaza Strip is a joint effort of Egypt and Israel, Egypt is being careful not to rupture the ties between the countries.
This is a relationship that obligates Israel to exercise extra caution so as not to feed into the hands of those demonstrating in front of the Israeli embassy in Cairo and the consulate in Alexandria. If, in the past, Israel could rely on Mubarak to set the public agenda himself and to suppress anyone taking exception to it, now the Egyptian government's room for flexibility has been reduced considerably. So has the extent of the Egyptian government's control over the media, in the context of the revolution that has been sweeping the country. As a result, the government's ability to shape public opinion is no longer entirely in its hands.
At the same time, the new government in Egypt has embraced a new policy regarding the Bedouin of Sinai, who under Mubarak had been viewed with suspicion and had their livelihood limited and their rights infringed upon. The government of Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, at the direction of the head of the supreme military council, Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, came to a decision Friday that a special authority would already be established tomorrow to deal with the problems of the Bedouin. That is an important decision from a security standpoint inasmuch as the Bedouin in Sinai have become important collaborators with radical organizations, particularly as it relates to the smuggling of weapons - not due to a shared ideology but as a source of income.
Israel cannot allow itself to take a narrow view that ignores events in Egypt, the heated political struggle going on there and the fact that Israel is inseparable from Egyptian domestic policy.
Israel, which views prestige as a strategic asset - as Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya'alon explained regarding his opposition to an Israeli apology to Turkey over last year's deaths on the Gaza flotilla - must recognize that Egypt shares that perspective when it comes to its own demand for an apology from Israel. An apology is sometimes a sturdy ladder when one wishes to climb down from the heights of a position of prestige that can poison relations between countries and cause serious strategic damage. The fragile ties with Egypt are liable not to withstand the apology test if Israel decides to embrace the Turkish model.