Egypt Turmoil May Prompt Israel to Strike Gaza

Israel may well decide to strike Gaza - but that decision will be determined not in Jerusalem, but by events in Cairo.

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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Amir Oren
Amir Oren

Former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser once told Leonid Brezhnev, who later related the anecdote to Henry Kissinger, "We control the newspapers and radio. But if you want to know the real secrets, go to the casbah." He wasn't talking about Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda or other open-air markets where Israeli politicians troll for votes in election season. Instead, the reference was to the Khan al-Khalili bazaar in Cairo.

Assuming there is a new government in Egypt next summer, the country will have been ruled for 60 years by the "free officers," by figures such as Nasser, who founded the revolutionary Free Officers Movement in 1948 to unseat the Egyptian monarchy, and Anwar Sadat, who stirred an uprising on July 23, 1952. After them came the next generation of officers, Hosni Mubarak and Mohamed Hussein Tantawi. From Israel's standpoint, these six decades witnessed wars, the peace agreement, and Israel's withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula and the evacuation of that region's settlements in 1982.

A demonstration in Tahrir Square last week.Credit: AFP

At the end of this period, the term's oxymoronic character seems manifest: When are officers free? When U.S. President Barack Obama's government this week praised the "courageous" Egyptian people's struggle for freedom - transposing the contents of its declaration regarding Syria and the fight against Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime - it sent an unequivocal message to Tantawi, Egypt's de facto head of state: Egypt, in Washington's eyes, is a strategic asset, but its military government should not harbor illusions about the depth of America's support for the survival of its current regime.

Apart from Iran, the Middle East lacks experience in strong, armed theocracy. There were secular powers, such as Egypt in the days of Nasser and Sadat and Iraq under Saddam Hussein, and there are weak theocracies, such as Saudi Arabia, or mini-theocracies such as Hezbollah and Hamas. An Islamicist Egypt will be an unknown continent.

Sadat's choice in favor of peace with Israel was, fundamentally, a choice of an alliance with the United States and severance of ties with the Soviets. Under a rational analysis, it's implausible that any Egyptian leader who cares about the country's faltering economy would dare to risk alienating America and losing the support provided by Washington to Egypt's economy and army. But that's the flaw in rational analysis: Religious movements are liable to become so fanatic that they fashion policy at variance with these practical considerations, and seek alliances with other power blocs (one possibility would be China ).

Military muscle

As a regional power, Egypt clearly needs a large, strong army. Less clear is the question of what this army might oppose during the second decade of the 21st century. Col. Muammar Gadhafi's Libya, which threatened clashes with Egypt during the 1980s and 1990s, has collapsed. Ships now relay large quantities of state-of-the-art arms from Gadhafi's arsenals to Egypt's shores or Sinai, and from there to Gaza. To the south, Sudan's situation has stabilized, more or less.

Egyptian military intervention in the region is possible. One conspicuous past example of an Egyptian display of military muscle involves the stationing of a division on the Saudi side of the Iraqi border, during the 1991 war for the removal of Saddam's troops from Kuwait - but such a maneuver is not relevant today. What remains is Israel, particularly so long as Israel's government obstinately contributes to the perpetuation of the Palestinian problem.

Israel's leadership talks about the inevitability of another operation in Gaza, and even warns, as Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz put it this week, of this being a "painful" action. (Painful to whom? Gantz is likely to regret this phraseology should Israeli civilian areas be shelled in some standoff with Hamas.) As it turns out, a decision about the date of this operation (since it appears a decision in favor of the operation has already been reached ), depends on a number of factors - intelligence assessment of likely targets, the weather, the readiness levels of regular and reserve troops and, last but not least, the situation in Egypt. In a nutshell, here's what they're equivocating about: Should Israel make haste, and take action while Tantawi and his officers remain in power? On one side of the equation, the next regime in Egypt is liable to be extremely anti-Israel; whatever happens, it will be less tolerant and sensitive toward Israel than the current military government. The participation of the Muslim Brotherhood in a new government would create an ideological, and even geographic, affinity between it and the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip.

A strong IDF action in Gaza, one that would exact a toll on Gaza's population and infrastructure equivalent to that caused by Operation Cast Lead, would provoke a new regime in Egypt, and possibly cause it to send troops to Gaza as symbolic assistance or as a human shield. Such a deployment of Egyptian troops would not necessarily infringe the security appendix to the peace agreement. They could reach Gaza after a short trip from Rafah, or via air or sea. Under such a scenario, Israel would have to choose between continuing its operation and risking a confrontation with Egyptian soldiers, or curtailing the operation in the hopes of forestalling a process whereby the new Egypt would become Hamas' patron.

These issues urge Israel to consider taking quick action, before June-July 2012. On the other side of the equation, immediate action would possibly bring the current military regime to an end: Egypt's public would denounce the military government were it to exercise restraint in the event of an Israeli operation. Such a dynamic would promote election results distinctly unpalatable to Israel. The final result could be a tactical success (for instance, the decapitation of Hamas' radical-military leadership in Gaza, and serious damage to Hamas' rocket network ) but a strategic failure.

Israel could replicate Operation Black Arrow, the IDF's action in Gaza of late February 1955. David Ben-Gurion returned to the Defense Ministry from self-imposed exile in Sde Boker: Unlike then-Prime Minister Moshe Sharett, Ben-Gurion was looking for a fight; and after an ill-fated spy caper in 1954, intended to discredit the Egyptian government, Defense Minister Pinhas Lavon had left his post. Under the leadership of IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan, and executed forcefully by the Paratrooper Battalion 890 commander Ariel Sharon, Israel implemented a policy of retaliation for murderous terror infiltration from Gaza. The IDF clashed with Egyptian units in Gaza, and killed 37 of their soldiers. Responding to these clashes, Nasser decided to draw closer to the Soviets, and received tanks and planes from them (this became known as the "Czech arms deal").

This sequence of events led to the 1956 Sinai Campaign, which added laurels to Dayan's name and served as his springboard to the political arena. Dayan's subsequent moves also became wedded to developments in Egypt: his appointment as defense minister, on the eve of the Six-Day War, as a result of the threat posed by Nasser; his fall from grace owing to his culpability for the setbacks of the 1973 Yom Kippur War; and his redemptive work leading to contact on a peace agreement with Egypt, forged in the end as a result of Sadat's initiatives.

The peace agreement led to the complete severance of the Gaza Strip and the Palestinian issue from Israeli-Egyptian relations. As it turned out, both issues, the Palestinians and Israel-Egypt, progressed alongside one another on parallel tracks. This basis has lost its equilibrium in recent years as a result of mistakes made by Israel - from the IDF's pullback from the Philadelphi route on the Egypt-Gaza border and Israel's acquiescence to pressure applied by former U.S. President George Bush and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in favor of Hamas' participation in Palestinian Authority elections, and up to Israel's acceptance of Hamas' military takeover in Gaza. The continuation of this sequence is likely to be lethal to Israeli-Egyptian relations, should Gaza City become a sister city to an Islamicist Cairo during the next IDF operation.

A Grad is enough

The stimulus that prompted Black Arrow was the killing of Israeli civilians in the street. Today, no armed terrorist needs to be sent from Gaza in order to kill Israelis in or near the street - a Grad rocket suffices. And new theaters of conflict continue to appear. The terror attacks near Eilat three months ago added a new, worrisome theater: The IDF is considering converting the 80th Division (Edom ), commanded by Brig. Gen. Nadav Padan, to a full-fledged regional division along the lines of the Gaza border.

Police Southern District Commander Yossi Parienti is completely engaged by these security developments and considerations. New awakenings and security arrangements in the south involve the IDF's Southern Command, the Shin Bet security service's southern region unit, and the IDF's Home Front Command's southern district. The Border Police's intelligence and investigation bureau in the Arava, which deals with the collection of criminal evidence pertaining to border smuggling, and other intelligence and security tasks, assists the IDF's 80th Division.

Without mentioning coastal border area and bases that the IDF is establishing in the Negev, which are liable to attract terror attacks, it should be stressed that the south represents two-thirds of the territory of the State of Israel - 14,000 kilometers. The region features 1,500 kilometers of roads between cities, 1.1 million residents (one-sixth of whom are Bedouin), 240 communities, the largest clusters of hotels in the country (in Eilat and the Dead Sea), and more than 600 kilometers of borders (250 kilometers with Jordan, 240 with Egypt, 56 with Gaza and 74 as border space south of the Hebron Hills whose border fence is being built slowly, ostensibly for economic and legal reasons).

Should all gaps in fences and possible access points be sealed off on the Egyptian border, infiltration-minded fighters will move their equipment and plans to other Israeli border areas, on the Jordanian or Palestinian side, just as the closing off of the Gaza border pushed terrorists southward, toward the Egyptian border. Criminal activity combines with intelligence-driven or terroristic infiltration, and relies on field vehicles (various types of tractors, mopeds), or is carried out by foot or on camel. Via various means, drugs are brought from Egypt to Jordan and back via Israel (the main import items are marijuana and hashish; the export staple is heroin).

Israeli security officials responsible for affairs on the Egyptian border identify three types of field conditions. The north, known as the "sand region" or the "soft underbelly," is a large, open area (thus, it is designating for land swaps with the Palestinians, according to the foolish logic holding that eastern areas that include settlements are worth more to Israel). South of this region is a hilly area that is not friendly to vehicle travel. Finally, there is the river region, which includes the moshav of Paran. This area's character is not conducive to anti-infiltration work: It is hard to reach points in the region since access roads to and from IDF bases are problematic. One possible solution could be the deployment of IDF soldiers, with helicopters ready for use.

A twilight era

The Middle East's "season of change," a period the Obama administration has praised, is actually a strange twilight era. Suddenly, Lebanon appears as the most stable element in Israel's neighboring areas. Egypt and Syria are not the last unstable links in the chain. It was no coincidence that Jordan's King Abdullah II visited Ramallah this week, boycotting Jerusalem and the offices of Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Even if the "march of the million" that took place on Friday in Cairo does not result in anything dramatic, the future of the mine-strewn Jordanian border could resemble that of the Egyptian border, and refugees from Syria who have up to now fled to Turkey could turn south and stream into Jordan.

In this atmosphere, it will be no surprise should Israel's political leadership decide to take preemptive steps and launch an action in Gaza, before that area (and not only that area) becomes volatile. During Gantz's nine months as chief of staff, plans for new operations have been drawn, old plans have been revised and numerous battle-oriented discussions have been staged. Decisions will, apparently, be reached in Jerusalem - but they will be dictated by events in open-air markets and public squares in Cairo.



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