Israel’s Anti-Egypt Posturing a Boon to Eilat Attackers

Following the 8/18 terrorist attacks near Eilat, the IDF launched air strikes at Rafah, Gaza, killing at least six Palestinians (including members of the Popular Resistance Committees, who Israel alleges are behind the attacks). Further IDF action in Gaza, apparently directed at Hamas targets, began in the early morning hours of August 19.

The Commander-in-Chief of Israel’s Southern Command has stated that “terrorists carrying explosive devices, weapons, and grenades entered Israel from Sinai.” Mortar fire was also reported as being directed at Israeli targets from the Sinai, and the IDF claims that the attackers infiltrated and exfiltrated Israel through the Sinai Peninsula. Egyptian leaders deny that any armed group could have accomplished this.

Israel also says it already knows the ultimate point of origin of the attacks: Tahrir Square, Cairo!

Tahrir Square?

Yes, Tahrir Square. “It is clear that the Egyptian revolution that began in Tahrir Square and spread through other Arab states has now made its way into Israel,” according to a Haaretz analysis of the attacks. Ynet states that “Sinai turns into terror hotbed – and Israel is first to pay [the] price.” The official Israeli response clearly intimates the unreliability of the “new” Egypt in maintaining Israel’s security (militarily, though, the official response is focused on Gaza for now). Defense Minister Ehud Barak told reporters that “the incident shows the weakening Egyptian grip on Sinai and the widening operation of terrorists there,” though he concluded that “the source of these terror acts is in Gaza and we will act against them with full force.” CNN opines that the Egyptians now “have something else to worry about: the use of Egyptian soil by Islamist extremists to recruit, train, acquire arms, and take the fight to Israel.” U.S. officials have stated that “the attacks reinforce concerns about the ability and willingness of the Egyptian government to safeguard its borders against the passage of militants and weapons” (Egypt, as a major U.S.-aid recipient, ought to be worried over these Beltway rumblings, especially since popular demonstrations are still going on Egypt ).

While all of these individuals have a point – the Sinai has become a greater security issue in 2011, for both Israel and Egypt – the Israeli government (and American neoconservatives) has been questioning Egyptian “reliability” for months, and not just over the Sinai. Egypt’s reliability is being questioned because Israel’s long-time ally, Mubarak, is now on trial after being deposed by the army and demonstrations. The new situation in the region (unrest in Syria is increasing as well) unnverves the government: better the devils you know – Mubarak and Assad – than the ones you don’t.

Assertions that the “Arab Spring” is undermining Israeli security (FM Lieberman concluded in May that the “Arab Spring” will end in an “Iranian Winter,” a view echoed in the U.S. as well) are exactly what the attackers, whether Palestinian, Egyptian or even members of al Qaeda, want to hear: Israel condemning the “Arab Spring” because it poses a threat to Israeli security (never mind what Egypt’s army does to Egyptians; just keep the borders sealed).

Haaretz’s military analyst Amir Oren had this to say:

“Israel has lost a cold but tough partner. Mubarak also had difficulty imposing authority on Sinai, but his deposers and heirs aren’t even trying.”

[Snip]

“Israel does not border on the Suez Canal or the Nile. Egypt is a hostile state that enables Israel’s enemies [the popular resistance committees and Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, Iran] to attack it.”

Oren evinced the growing sense of siege that the Israeli security establishment feels today:

“Without Mubarak, and with Hamas in Gaza, with a Jordanian king fearing for his throne and an American administration that doesn’t believe in Israel’s judgment, what comes next could be even worse.”

This is very much in line with statements made by the Netanyahu government, particurally Foreign Minister Lieberman. Lieberman is to be taken seriously (not only is the Foreign Minister, but he is also the leader of the small but influential right-wing Yisrael Beitenu party in Netanyahu’s government): he, among others, regards the seizure of power by pro-Iranian Islamists in Egypt, Tunisia, and other Arab countries such as Syria and Libya as very real possibilities (though with Bahrain, Israel probably has little to worry about; the U.S. and the Saudis are doing a job of keeping things quiet down in the Gulf).

Yet Oren and I do agree on one thing in our analysis: that the real damage of this attack will be felt between Tel Aviv and Cairo. Except my understanding of the damage is different from his. The timing of the attacks coincides with ongoing Egyptian military operations against Islamist groups in the Sinai Peninsula (a move Israel endorsed). Since the fall of Mubarak, anti-government fighters in the Sinai have been attacking Egyptian military outposts, infiltrating into towns and blowing up gas pipelines between Egypt and Israel. Meanwhile, Israel, which occupied the Sinai between 1967 and 1982, asserts that Hamas smuggles fighters, supplies and weapons into Gaza through an extensive tunnel system. After Mubarak fell, the Israeli government argued that Hamas had redoubled its efforts to ship weapons into Gaza through these tunnels (indeed, the Egyptian Army’s control of the region slackened during the anti-regime protests; the resulting campaign is an effort to reassert control over the strategic peninsula).

In choosing to attack Eilat, the attackers may have sought to influence Egypt’s position towards Israel by stoking the fires of anti-Israeli sentiment in the region (and not just merely take advantage of the chaos in the Sinai for tactical purposes). One of the first things the transitional government that replaced Israel’s long-time ally Mubarak promised to do was uphold the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, a treaty which at the time was regarded as an act of craven capitulation by then-Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. The transitional government had absolutely no desire to test Israeli will or American largess by repudiating that treaty, or agreements that followed it. By attacking targets on the Israeli-Egyptian border, the insurgents may hope to win accolades for so brazenly “sticking it” to the two main regional powers. Like a judo master, the attackers are compensating for their small frame by using their opponent’s own power and momentum against him.

Israel, though refuses to consider this, responding reflexively by attacking the alleged perpetrators. Netanyahu, judo-like, is turning the attacks into a political victory for his government. For the Israeli government, the latest attacks present an oppotunity to have the country “rally ’round the flag.” With the Palestinian statehood initiative at the UN pending and a series of social protests among Israelis of all political colors, this event takes some of the pressure off the latter and allows a refocusing of the debate on the former (Israel opposses the UN initiative). No one wants to be derided as weak on the attackers. The Knesset is already closing ranks behind the PM (how long this lasts is anyone’s guess), and the J14 demonstrators will be giving their weekend protests over to solidarity rallies with the Israeli victims of the attack.

Israeli security concerns are valid: terrorists, possibly working to destabilize both Egypt and Israel, have invaded Israeli territory and killed Israeli civilians. But Israeli denunciations of the “Arab Spring” are counterproductive because they only reinforce the perception that Israel supports dictatorial rule in the region. No one’s security is being served by Netanyahu’s response – including Israel’s.