From the moment Egyptian street protesters forced Hosni Mubarak to step aside as president two years ago this month, Israeli government officials quickly realized, much to their consternation, that Israel’s pivotal relationship with Egypt had entered more difficult terrain.
Mubarak, a secular authoritarian leader who inherited the presidency from the murdered Anwar Sadat in 1981, was hardly an ideal partner. Although he preserved the 1979 peace treaty, the first between Israel and an Arab state, and regularly conferred with Israeli prime ministers and cabinet ministers in Cairo – he refused to travel to Israel, except to attend Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral – he kept bilateral relations on a distant level.
He also tolerated antisemitic articles and commentaries in state-supported newspapers and magazines, twice recalled Egypt’s envoy in Israel – in 1982 and again in 2000 – and did not crack down hard enough on the contagion of lawlessness in the Sinai Peninsula, a haven for disaffected Bedouins and preying jihadists under the influence of Al Qaeda.
Israel’s worst fears materialized during the interim post-Mubarak period, when Egypt was temporarily ruled by a military council headed by the defence minister, Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.
Eight Israelis, including two soldiers, were killed by Arab marauders in a cross-border attack in August 2011. In hot pursuit of the terrorists, the Israeli army accidentally killed several policemen in Egyptian territory.
About a month later, an Egyptian mob stormed and ransacked the Israeli Embassy in Cairo as Egyptian police looked on passively. The entire staff was immediately evacuated to Israel, and the embassy was shuttered. A replacement embassy building has yet to be found.
Beyond these disquieting incidents, the biggest challenge to Israel’s bond with Egypt turns on Mohamed Morsi, its first democratically elected president in modern history. Morsi, the candidate of the viscerally anti-Israel Muslim Brotherhood, has moderated his public pronouncements on Israel since assuming office last June, yet he remains unalterably hostile to the Jewish state.
Morsi has pledged to respect the peace treaty, but largely to appease the United States. On the minus side, he has frozen Egypt’s already cold relations with Israel and steadfastly refuses to meet its leaders, which means that Israeli contacts with Egypt are maintained through its security/intelligence apparatus.
Last July, in an unmistakable sign of the times, he actually denied having sent Israeli President Shimon Peres a friendly letter in which he expressed hopes for regional security and stability. Three months later, Egypt’s new ambassador to Israel, Atef Salem, presented Peres with a letter from Morsi in which he described Peres as a “great friend” and went on to express a desire for strengthening bilateral ties.
A Muslim Brotherhood official dismissed the letter as a hoax, but Morsi’s spokesman acknowledged it. Still another Muslim Brotherhood official, a founder of Morsi’s Freedom and Justice party, accused Morsi of treason and urged him to resign.
Shortly afterward, video footage from a prayer service in an Egyptian mosque showed Morsi silently mouthing “amen” to incendiary comments made by the director of a religious endowment, who declared, “Oh Allah, destroy the Jews and their supporters. Oh Allah, disperse them and rend them asunder.”
Early this year, the Middle East Media Research Institute released the transcript of a 2010 interview posted on the Internet in which Morsi lashed out at Zionists and Jews. He described Zionists as “bloodsuckers” and the descendants of pigs and apes, and suggested that “criminal Zionists” had no national rights in Israel. And in a page out of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, he accused Jews of sowing civil strife in countries where they are citizens. On a visit to Berlin, Morsi claimed that his comments had been taken out of context and that he respected Judaism. But his apology was abjectly lame and utterly unconvincing.
On the day he issued this clarification, an Egyptian government official close to Morsi, Shihab Eddim, the editor-in-chief of state-controlled Egyptian newspapers, brazenly called the Holocaust a “myth,” claiming that the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis had in fact moved to the United States during World War II.
To members of the Muslim Brotherhood, such ahistorical comments are neither jarring nor inappropriate. Since Morsi’s accession to power eight months ago, a succession of Muslim Brotherhood officials have issued a steady stream of vitriolic comments that truly reflect opinion within that Islamic organization.
Last August, Ahmed Subei, a media advisor to Morsi’s Freedom and Justice party, denounced Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel as “a mark of shame” and demanded that it be amended. Last September, Mohamed Saif al-Dawla, Morsi’s adviser on Arab affairs, referred to Israel as “occupied Arab Palestine.” Last October, Mohamed Badie, the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, demanded Israel’s destruction and claimed that Jews “spread corruption.” Last December, a senior Muslim Brotherhood official, Essam el-Erian, urged Egyptian Jews living in Israel to return to Egypt and leave Israel for the Palestinians.
On the brighter side, Morsi has promised to spare no effort to rid Sinai of Islamic fundamentalist terrorists, but his officials have called for the revision of the peace treaty, a pillar of stability in the Middle East, and have warned that Israeli incursions into Sinai to deal with fleeing terrorists will be met with force.
Despite the depth of anti-Israel opinion within Egypt’s elite, Egypt, in concert with Israel, has taken firm steps to try to wipe out terrorism in Sinai. Since jihadists killed 16 Egyptian border guards last August, Israel has temporarily waived clauses in the peace treaty pertaining to Egyptian troop limits and permitted Egypt to carry out massive anti-terrorist raids in Sinai.
Last summer, for the first time since the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Egypt deployed aircraft, missiles, heavy artillery and tanks to restore a measure of calm there. Since then, Egypt has seized tons of military equipment and munitions bound for Gaza, some of them from Libya, and flooded arms smuggling tunnels used by Hamas and other groups, saying the tunnels destabilize the Sinai.
Israeli Minister of Strategic Affairs Moshe Ya’alon has applauded these efforts, which are plainly in Egypt’s interests, but in the meantime, Israel has continued to build a 232-kilometre-long security fence from Gaza to Eilat to keep out infiltrators and African refugees. But as Israeli chief of staff Gen. Benny Gantz says, the barrier will not be foolproof.
Last November, just before voicing support for the Palestinian campaign to win upgraded observer status at the United Nations, Morsi played a key role in ending Israel’s eight-day border war with Hamas and its Islamic allies in the Gaza Strip. But on the first day of the war, he condemned Israel’s operation, threatened to cancel the peace treaty in the event of an Israeli invasion of Gaza and recalled Egypt’s newly installed ambassador in Tel Aviv.
Shortly after his election, in a dramatic shift away from Egypt’s formerly cool attitude to Hamas, Morsi invited Ismail Haniyeh, the prime minister of Gaza, to Cairo, and eased restrictions on Palestinians crossing into Egypt from Gaza.
Clearly, a new and uncertain era has dawned in Israel’s relations with Egypt.