Rival and Suitor, Friend and Foe

The events in the south in the last three days show that Israel has indeed become a full partner in regional conflicts.

Once there is peace with Arab states, the late General Israel Tal used to say, Israel will be a "regular player in Middle East intrigue." He meant that the lifting of the state of war in the region will not provide affordable housing to the wolf and the sheep and will instead put Israel on a status similar to that of Egypt and Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the rest - sometimes friends, sometimes rivals.

The events in the south in the last three days show that Israel has indeed become a full partner in regional conflicts. Just as Turkey is by turns Syria's rival and suitor, so too Egypt moves back and forth along its spectrum of attitudes to Israel, never in complete harmony with Jerusalem, but also not going to war against it for the sixth time, in what would be the first war since 1973.

On the Israeli side, Saturday a supreme effort was made to calm the desert winds. Defense Minister Ehud Barak's statement in effect sent the message that Israel's harsh aerial response to Thursday's terror attacks was finished and that no further escalation was anticipated, certainly not a ground assault. It was an open letter to Egypt: Israel will not launch "Operation Cast Lead 2" and will not risk hurting Palestinian civilians, in order to avoid creating an even more serious crisis in its relations with Cairo.

The recall of the Egyptian ambassador from Tel Aviv is not unprecedented. It is a move that has lasting effects but that is common in such circumstances, when Egypt seeks to signal discomfort (with Israel's invasion of Lebanon or combat-helicopter assault on the Gaza Strip ) without causing a complete break. Egypt isn't taking its ball and going home - it's just setting it aside for a spell.

Nevertheless, there is a difference: Previously, the ambassadors were called home in the context of the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak, a partner to the war and peace nexus of Anwar Sadat. Mubarak was commander of the Egyptian air force in the 1973 Yom Kippur War and he was vice president during the period of Sadat's visit to Jerusalem, the Camp David peace talks and the peace treaty with Prime Minister Menachem Begin and U.S. President Jimmy Carter. In the 38 years since October 1973 a generation came of age in Egypt that was not scarred by Israel's might.

The military council that rules Egypt today knows a different, weaker Israel. That council must be receptive to the anti-Israel voices of the Egyptian people. Among the presidential candidates are individuals who fiercely oppose Israel and its power, including in the nuclear arena. Israeli military actions in Cairo's sphere of influence - Sinai and the Gaza Strip - places additional pressure on its provisional government.

This situation creates new limitations for Israel's freedom of action in Gaza. Israel must rank its priorities: Egypt first, not Gaza. To the extent that it can control the situation Israel must not return to the bad decades of having an active western front, when the most important field commander in the Israel Defense Forces was GOC Southern Command. It was not by coincidence that these boots were filled by Yigal Allon, Moshe Dayan and Ariel Sharon.

For the past three decades the Southern Command lost its glory in comparison to its northern and central counterparts. Some years ago the chief of staff was asked whether he trusted the GOC Southern Command to be able to oversee the Egyptian front in the event of a worsening of relations with Cairo. "Are you kidding? If that happens I'll be in charge of the command myself," the chief of staff replied.

Active Egyptian hostility would force the IDF to maintain a larger order of forces (ground, air, naval and intelligence ). Frameworks that have been dissolved, including divisions and corps, would have to be reestablished. One test will come in six weeks' time, with the 30th anniversary of Sadat's assassination. If Israel is engaged at that time in a confrontation with the Palestinians, who are expected to declare independence, the crisis could be particularly serious.

In that event, it will be necessary not only to prevent an immediate flareup but also to establish channels of communication. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not a desirable dialogue partner for the Egyptian regime, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is remembered for his threat to blow up the Aswan Dam and Barak means well but is limited in his capacity for action.

There is a good line of communication between the IDF top brass and their Egyptian counterparts, both directly and through international mediation, including the heads of the Unified Combatant Commands in the U.S. Pentagon and NATO commands. The heads of the Israeli and Egyptian general staffs or their representatives should be invited to Washington for a discussion, before the point of no return is reached in the deterioration of Jerusalem-Cairo relations.