Why Was Israel Clueless About Cairo?

Since the peace accord with Egypt, Israel has been preoccupied with enemies to the north and east. Maybe that's why it was caught off guard by recent events to the west?

The government, the intelligence community and academic experts in Israel believed Hosni Mubarak's regime was stable and would endure until the veteran Egyptian president passed the reins to his son Gamal or his intelligence minister, Omar Suleiman. America's support for Mubarak also looked unshakable. The Israeli assessment of the situation was best summed up as follows: "There is nothing new to the west, and there will be nothing new."

And then the masses revolted against Mubarak, and Israel was surprised three times over: by the way the ruler was replaced, by the timing and by the U.S. reaction.

The intelligence failure is reminiscent of the Israel Defense Forces Military Intelligence assessment that there was a "low probability" of war breaking out on the eve of Yom Kippur in 1973 - but its significance is different. Then, the enemy was at the gates, and the surprise prevented the timely call-up of reserves and led to the collapse of the top command. This time around, only the government was caught off guard.

The upshot was that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continued to support Mubarak even after U.S. President Barack Obama had turned his back on him. Netanyahu also publicly voiced his fears that the peace agreement would collapse and that Egypt would become a new Iran. In closed forums, he warned that Israel would have to increase its defense budget, quickly complete the fence along the southern border and prepare for the possible closure of the Suez Canal and even the Straits of Tiran. Had the premier prepared for the revolution, perhaps he would have spoken more carefully and exposed himself less to international criticism.

What caused the assessment error? Like in 1973, this time, too, the assessors embraced a "conception" that guided their thinking: that Egypt has a strong government and a feeble opposition. The distorted outcome of the Egyptian parliamentary election last fall were perceived here as proof of the ruling party's strength, not as a sign of weakness in a regime that relies on deception and bullying to survive.

Ever since the peace treaty was signed with Egypt, Israeli intelligence has been concentrating on its enemies to the east and north - Syria, Lebanon, Iran and the Palestinians. Intelligence officers perceived an assignment on the Egyptian desk as being sent into exile. The people who handled the Iranian nuclear capabilities or "global terror" earned promotions, trips to intelligence meetings abroad and career-enrichment opportunities at research institutes.

The intelligence chiefs were also personally acquainted with their counterparts in Cairo and had ongoing working relationships with them. It would have been hard for them to return from meetings with their Egyptian peers and then write a report questioning the stability of the regime in Cairo.

Government officials had similar troubles. Had Netanyahu convened a meeting to discuss the future of Egypt, and had this leaked, it would have been a serious insult to Mubarak and would have fomented a grave crisis in the already delicate relations with Egypt. Mubarak's advanced age and declining health did not go unnoticed by intelligence officials, Middle East specialists and journalists. Indeed, over the past year, the succession question was addressed extensively in Israel and the Western media, with most analysts forecasting continued stability.

American journalist Adam Shatz, however, wrote in The London Review of Books last May that the political situation in Egypt was reminiscent of the twilight of the shah's regime in Iran. Even more presciently and precisely, Assaf Adiv, of the Internet magazine Etgar, wrote at the end of May that Egypt was on the threshold of a grassroots social revolution. He cited reports in Al-Ahram Weekly - the official organ of the regime - on the growing number of demonstrations in Egypt, predicting they would spread. "The option that Mubarak's regime can last is nothing but an illusion," he wrote in response to an article of mine in Haaretz, which expressed the Israeli hope that the president's regime would be long-lived.

Shatz and Adiv were right, but it is doubtful that anyone in intelligence and academia reads them. Shatz is sharply critical of Israel, and Adiv has been labeled a leftist extremist. Perhaps they're being read in the Shin Bet security services antisubversion department, but not on the Egyptian desk of MI. The conclusion: It's worth seeking information from nontraditional sources, even sources that annoy the officer and the professor.

In the fall, after the rigged Egyptian parliamentary election, signs were beginning to surface that the United States was distancing itself from Mubarak. Articles critical of his regime trickled from the margins to prominent publications like The New Republic and The Washington Post, which called upon Obama to promote democracy in Egypt and to disassociate himself from its veteran dictator.

The impression was that something had changed, but it was lost on the Israeli establishment. In his speech at the recent Herzliya Conference, the chair of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Kadima MK Shaul Mofaz, spoke about the surprise caused by "the earthquake that began in Tunisia, is continuing in Egypt and is liable to spread." He called for reexamining the reliability of American promises: "The [American] conduct in the Egyptian context constitutes a very severe malfunction," he said.

This week Mofaz convened his various subcommittees to discuss regional changes, but he did not say anything about investigating the intelligence failure. Perhaps it's not even necessary: Mubarak is gone, but the Egyptian regime remains intact, as the country is ruled under emergency laws by the "Supreme Military Command." If the officers fall in love with their chairs, the assessments regarding the stability of the regime will yet turn out to be correct and the demonstrations in Tahrir Square will look like an isolated event that fizzled out.