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After Sinai Attacks, an Opening for Israeli-egyptian Cooperation

October 12, 2004
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The coordinated terrorist attacks on Israeli tourists in Sinai may have some significant, unintended consequences: a deepening of anti-terrorism cooperation between Israel and Egypt and greater Egyptian readiness to guarantee security in the Gaza Strip after Israel’s planned withdrawal next summer. At first glance, the Oct. 7 attacks were a blow to Middle Eastern rapprochement. It could take years before Israeli tourism to Sinai — one of the few signs of people-to-people normalcy in Israel’s relations with the Arab world — returns to anything like the dimensions of this holiday season.

There was a symbolic blow to peace too: Israeli reporters recalled that the Hilton Taba hotel, targeted by the terrorists, had hosted hundreds of hours of peace talks over the years between Israelis and Egyptians and Israelis and Palestinians.

With one wing of the hotel reduced to rubble, one reporter said the shattered building suggested a scarred monument to failed visions of peace. But some noted another image: Israeli and Egyptian rescue workers sifting through rubble together.

Behind the scenes, top Israeli and Egyptian officials discussed intelligence and other cooperation against the common threat of Islamic terrorism. Avi Dichter, head of Israel’s Shin Bet security service, visited the site of the Hilton attack and met with Egyptian counterparts.

Soon afterward, Israeli field agents were allowed to scour the scenes of the Sinai bombings for evidence. They worked closely with Egyptian security agents and were given information from Egyptian interrogations of suspects and eyewitnesses.

This constituted cooperation of an unprecedented nature for Egyptian authorities, who have been wary of cooperating with security agents of what many Egyptians still consider the “Zionist enemy.”

According to initial Israeli intelligence estimates, the three coordinated bombings, one on the Hilton Taba and two at the Sinai resort of Ras Satan, were carried out by “Global Jihad,” a network of radical Islamic groups directed by Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaida organization.

Though Israeli tourists were targeted, some Israeli counterterrorism experts believe the attackers’ primary goal was to destabilize the Egyptian regime.

“Global Jihad’s main aim is to topple moderate Arab and Muslim regimes, like that in Egypt, and bring like-minded Islamic radicals to power,” said Boaz Ganor of the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center.

The attacks were designed mainly to hit Egypt’s tourism industry, weaken the economy and destabilize the regime, Ganor said. If that’s indeed the case, Egypt has an obvious interest in cooperating with all intelligence services, including Israel’s, that can supply advance warning of planned attacks and help target would-be perpetrators.

For most of the 25 years that Egypt and Israel have been nominally at peace, such cooperation would have been unthinkable. A former Egyptian foreign minister, Boutros Boutros Ghali, coined the term “cold peace” to describe how Egypt had resisted normalizing relations even after signing a peace treaty.

Still, despite strong Egyptian criticism of Israel’s handling of the Palestinian intifada, ties had been warming for several months before the Sinai attacks. The most significant upgrading came in late May, when President Hosni Mubarak affirmed Egypt’s readiness to help keep the peace in Gaza after Israel’s planned withdrawal.

Mubarak agreed to beef up Egyptian forces to patrol the border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, prevent the smuggling of weapons from Sinai into Gaza and send Egyptian instructors to train Palestinian Authority security forces.

Since then, the Egyptians have been trying to mediate a cease-fire involving all Palestinian organizations, including radical groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

In late May, Mubarak and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon agreed to set up political, security and economic committees to upgrade all aspects of the countries’ bilateral relationship. The move coincided with the conclusion of the biggest deal ever between the two countries: a contract worth $2.5 billion for Egypt to supply Israel with natural gas for 15 years, beginning in 2006.

Israeli analysts attribute the change in Egypt’s attitude to Sharon’s plan to disengage from the Palestinians. They say the Egyptians are motivated by fear that after Israel’s withdrawal, Hamas will seize control of the Gaza Strip and make it a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism that could spill over into Egypt.

Now, after the Sinai bombings, Egypt has far more reason for concern. There is a palpable danger that Global Jihad would see a Hamas-controlled Gaza as a golden opportunity to establish a land base against Cairo. That gives Egypt added incentive to cooperate with Israel.

Giora Eiland, head of Israel’s national security council, summed up Israeli expectations: In the past, he said, the Egyptians had been lax about cracking down on criminal activities and weapons smuggling in Sinai, and had allowed “hostile elements” to get too close to the border with Israel.

Eiland said he hoped the Egyptians now would clamp down as strongly as they did against radical Islamic groups in Egypt in the 1990s.

But it won’t all be clear sailing. Egypt still sees itself as competing with Israel for regional hegemony, a perception that may lead Cairo to continue its efforts to compel Israel to give up its nuclear capability. And the sharp, often vitriolic, criticism of Israel’s response to Palestinian violence will almost certainly continue, at least in the press and on the Egyptian street.

Eventually, ties between Cairo and Jerusalem could mirror those Israel has with Jordan and Turkey — where, despite abiding popular hostility toward Israel, the regimes work closely at the highest strategic levels. (Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.)

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