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Egyptian Complicity, Israeli Understanding

7 November 2006

By Yisrael Ne’eman

Israel’s latest week long operation in Gaza will not succeed in curbing the Hamas, the Jihad or any other Palestinian terror organization. The IDF’s long term success is very much dependent on Egyptian cooperation in halting the weapons smuggling through the tunnels originating in Sinai where Egypt is sovereign. President Hosni Mubarak’s government has absolutely no interest in curbing terrorism, especially of the Islamic type, against Israel. The calculation is simple. Should the terrorists fail at arriving at the front lines in Gaza to do battle against the “Zionist enemy” they will simply turn around and report for duty to overthrow Mubarak’s secular regime. The Gaza front is Egypt’s pressure valve when confronting militant, totalitarian Islam. Shooting at the Jewish State takes pressure off Cairo.

In the summer of 2005 then PM Ariel Sharon realized that leaving the Philadelphi border line between Egypt and Gaza was a security risk. However he had little choice. For Israel to continue to hold such a narrow line would have been virtually impossible and immersed in major casualties. But more significantly he understood there was no choice but to “trust” the Egyptian security forces. Sharon believed Egypt would halt the smuggling or as mentioned previously in this column, he might well have expected the terror problem to spread world wide from Sinai, thereby forcing Egypt into working with West to find a universal solution in the battle against the global Jihadists.

Hosni Mubarak and Egypt are full accomplices in the Sinai – Gaza arms trafficking as pointed out by Likud MK Yuval Steinetz, former chairman of the foreign affairs and defense committee. Had the Egyptian authorities decided to halt all contraband coming into the port of El Arish and/or block weapons and ammunition shipments making their way overland to the Gaza border they certainly would have succeeded in doing so before any weapons entered the tunnels.

Israel cannot attack the weapons channels across the Egyptian border as there is a peace agreement with Cairo. The other alternative is to apply pressure through the US, but such a tactic is doomed to failure. Even the threat of a cut in US aid to Egypt has no leverage since Mubarak would not take the Americans seriously (and rightfully so) since there is no alternative to his pro-Western regime.

Last week IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz threatened to bomb the Gaza side of the Philadelphi line in an effort to collapse the tunnels. Just the suggestion drew a harsh condemnation from Egypt and was deemed a violation of the 1979 peace agreement (which it is not).

Cairo cannot afford for Israel to placate Gaza, forcing its Islamists back into Egypt. Israel understands this quite well and is correctly not willing to risk its relations with Mubarak over the Gaza issue. Paramount in Israeli strategic thinking is to keep Egypt from turning Islamic. An Islamic Egypt would be a strategic threat to the existence of the State of Israel. Israeli policy makers prefer a containment policy when facing the present tactical Kassam rocket attacks and terrorist nuisance emanating from Gaza.

As bad as it looks, the situation could get much worse. Presented with the choice, Jerusalem prefers the low intensity conflict with the Palestinians - tunnels, Kassams and all, over the risk involved in closing down the entire Gaza terror operation and having it backfire into the Nile Delta. This is bad news for the residents of Sderot and the western Negev for sure, but when calculating the overall risks involved, those living in Kassam range are paying the price for avoiding further instability in Egypt as fermented by the Islamists.

As a final note, as logical as it seems to bomb the Philadelphi line, it will come as no surprise if Jerusalem does not follow such a logical tactical move to the end. Should the Islamists deem it far too costly to supply Hamas with arms and ammunition they might be forced to redirect their efforts towards Mubarak & Co. Such a scenario could take a bad but containable Palestinian border conflict and turn it into an existentially threatening Islamist Egyptian nightmare.