Cold Peace, Hot Tensions


Tel Aviv — Mutual recriminations between Israel and Egypt entered a second week over the illicit weapons trade through the tunnels under Gaza’s border with the Sinai peninsula.

But the real reason for the recent chill in relations might be a dispute among Israeli foreign policy and defense officials. While some politicians like Likud parliament member Yuval Steinitz have sought to pressure Egypt by complaining to U.S. counterparts who have reduced Cairo’s $1.3 billion military aid package, experts say it’s an irresponsible departure from the government’s official policy.

“It’s a crossing of a red line,” said Shimon Shamir, the former Israeli ambassador to Egypt. “American aid to Egypt is part of the peace treaty. It has always been Israeli policy to support aid to Egypt; if some Israelis want to do the opposite, it subverts the attempt to have harmonious relations with Israel and Egypt.”

Annoyed about the role of Israelis in the aid sanction, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit this week threatened a retaliatory effort to punish Israel.

Steinitz, however, defended a letter he wrote to U.S. senators complaining about Egypt’s inability to stem weapons shipments. Years of trying to exert quiet pressure on the Egyptians to do a better job have largely failed, he suggested.

“Egypt should pay a price for their behavior. They can’t play it both ways anymore,” he told The Jewish Week. “Either they are partners of Hamas and Iran, which is enabling them with training and money, or they are partners of the U.S. and Israel, and even the PA [Palestinian Authority] to restrict Islamic fundamentalism. Since nothing else has happened so far, it is high time Israel should raise its complaints.”

The dispute in Israel reflects the tension between a three-decade-old peace treaty considered one of Israel’s most important strategic assets and disappointment that cooperation between the two countries remain chilly.

Steinitz accuses the Egyptians of knowing complicity with Hamas’ military buildup in Gaza, and claims Cairo’s help is similar to the aid that the Saudis gave al Qaeda before the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S. Recently, he pushed the Foreign Ministry to release tapes that show Egyptian soldiers helping smugglers to Congress members.

“It’s been business as been usual for too long. Egypt is helping Hamas to build its army by enabling arms to reach them through Sinai. It’s time to say enough is enough,” he said. “We have to make it clear to the Egyptians that if they’re supporting terrorism, we won’t hide this fact from the U.S. Congress, government or the people.”

The Israeli government is keeping a low profile on the aid controversy. When asked about reports Steinitz lobbied U.S. Congress members to force the White House to tie annual aid to performance on stopping smugglers, a government official declined comment.

The friction between the two countries burst into the open last week when Foreign Minister Tzippi Livni was quoted as saying that Egypt was doing a terrible job stopping smugglers. A meeting between Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak shortly afterward in Sharm el-Sheik appeared to resolve the diplomatic flap.

Still, Israel rejected an Egyptian request to boost the number of security officers on the border with Gaza from the current 750. Israeli officials said that they aren’t convinced that Egypt is utilizing the border units effectively. Though Israeli officials are frustrated with the Egyptians, they say that criticism from both sides should be aired in private — an implicit criticism of both Steinitz and Abu Gheit.

“There is a very specific problem about what is going on the border between Israel and Egypt,” said the official. “The peace with Egypt is very important to Israel and we are not interested in any public debates with the Egyptians. We prefer these issues with Egypt to be aired directly, as befits two friendly countries that live in peace.”

In addition to the aid, there’s been tension over Egypt’s decision last month to work with the Hamas government in Gaza to admit hundreds of Palestinian pilgrims at the Rafah border. But as those pilgrims returned to Gaza this week, Egypt did an about-face by blocking the Rafah crossing and forcing the travelers to undergo Israeli security checks. The standoff left hundreds of Gazans stranded at the Egyptian side of the border.

On Wednesday, Egypt allowed the pilgrims to return to Gaza, handing Hamas a public relations victory, of sort. Israel Radio quoted unidentified Israeli officials who were angry at Egypt’s about-face.

The Egyptian shift on Gaza border crossings reflects how Cairo is trying to navigate between allies in Israel and the U.S. and its own Muslim constituency, said former Ambassador Shamir. Israelis should accept that Mubarak’s policy at the border will never be as stringent as their own. Though Hamas’ success strengthens anti-government Islamists in Egypt, the government in Cairo is currently involved in prisoner-swap talks between Israel and Hamas, and needs to keep a minimum of good relations.

“Many Egyptian policies are a mystery, and I don’t pretend to understand why,” Shamir said. “The basic Egyptian policy is not like Israel, [which is] to crush Hamas, but they want to encourage an agreement with Hamas and Abbas. They believe this is necessary to advance the political process.”

While Israel and Egypt share common interests as allies of the U.S. and opponents of the Hamas regime in Gaza, the Egyptians aren’t keen to be perceived as cozying up to Israel, said Pini Meidan-Shani, a former Mossad agent and government adviser.

And while Meidan-Shani said that the Egyptians are not doing the minimum necessary for blocking the weapons shipments, he said Israel should pursue its case by applying consistent but quiet pressure.

“It’s a continuous effort to push them to action. They know what to do, if they have to do it,” he said.

Even if the complaints are legitimate, airing the criticism in public in the U.S. will only embarrass the Egyptians and undermine bilateral relations.

“By insulting them you won’t get more cooperation. That’s exactly what some politicians with a Western way of thinking do not understand. In the Middle East, there is something called dignity and honor,” said Meidan-Shani.

“We have to understand the rules of the game. There might be a point of no return. Should we deliberately humiliate the administration we are friends with? Is this the way to push them to action?”