Israeli construction vehicles building a barrier along the border with Egypt's Sinai desert. (Photo: Reuters)
Three days ago I wrote an IHT-New York Times article on the significance of the Sinai trouble for the prospect of peace making in the Middle East, and on the impact Sinai attacks and Egyptian turmoil have on the way Israelis eye the region.
Once again, the great irony of neighborly relations in the Middle East reveals itself to Israelis. On the one hand, making peace with autocratic regimes is only ever a temporary fix because their rulers have little legitimacy and the accords they sign come with unknown expiration dates. On the other hand, while hoping for democracy in the Arab world is a noble principle, it is also a recipe for lawlessness and instability.
Yesterday, Mike Herzog published a policy paper from which one can better understand the strategic implications the Sinai situation might have - not exactly an uplifting read:
Israel still enjoys good operational relations with the Egyptian military, but the latter is increasingly limited by anti-Israeli public sentiment and a politically empowered Muslim Brotherhood. Although Brotherhood leaders have stated that they will honor Egypt’s past international commitments, they have also promised to review the contents of the peace treaty with Israel. In particular, they have targeted the Military Annex, which stipulates Sinai’s demilitarization and is depicted as infringing on Egypt’s honor. It is not clear whether a Brotherhood-run government could or would de-escalate the border situation through its good relationship with Hamas. Yet if tensions erupt between Israel and militants in Gaza or Sinai, the pressure to alter the treaty would come to the fore and threaten bilateral relations.
Three quick comments to follow up on this:
1. Beware of jumping to black-and-white style conclusions such as: “Israel should re-occupy Sinai” or “the peace treaty with Egypt is dead”. We’re in a gray area regarding Egypt, which might remain a gray area for a long period of time before a more conclusive understanding of the situation emerges.
2. Herzog recommends international community involvement in preventing Sinai from becoming a source of instability. This might become one of the greatest challenges for American Middle East policy for the second Obama administration or a first Romney administration.
3. Israel views with much suspicion and apprehension American moves toward Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. It expects the US to set a very high price - litmus tests - before any meaningful engagement with Egypt’s radicals is established. I have good reason to expect that differences on Egypt policy will soon become public.