Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Cairo's Fine Line Between Peace And Conflict

After the killings of Egyptian officers in Sinai, Israel has received a giant wake-up call not to mess with its neighbour
By Linda S. Heard
Israelis have received a clear message; the cozy world in which their military has operated with impunity is no more. The alacrity with which the Israeli government issued a verbal apology for the deaths of Egyptian security officers that Cairo insists were killed by an Israeli Apache helicopter while chasing down fighters and agreed to a joint Israeli-Egyptian investigation is telling.
When the news first broke that the Israeli army had turned its guns on its Egyptian allies, Tel Aviv did what it always does to extricate itself from culpability; it cooked-up a bare-faced lie saying the Egyptian soldiers and policeman were victims of a suicide bomber. After all, lies have been working for Israel for decades.
Israel can never be in the wrong as was made clear to its ally Turkey and the international community following the Israeli assault on the Mavi Marmara that took the lives of nine Turkish activists who, according to Israel, were armed ‘terrorists' out to murder Israeli commandos. Until this day, Turkey is still waiting for an apology and compensation for the victims' families.
A similar blatant fabrication might have worked prior to Egypt's popular revolution when former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was in Washington's pocket and didn't hesitate to quell an angry street with force.
But not now when the Egyptian people have managed to wrest power from authorities hitherto compliant with Israel. They are in no mood to be humiliated or pushed around by their caretaker government let alone their arrogant neighbour.
Egyptians have reacted to the news with fury gathering outside the Israeli embassy in Cairo and the consulate in Alexandria intent on tearing down the Israeli flag and replacing it with the Egyptian and Palestinian standard, which Alexandrians succeeded in doing.
Crowds holding high photographs of Egypt's former president Jamal Abdul Nasser, burning depictions of the Star of David and calling for the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador and an end to the Camp David Peace Treaty were permitted to gather while Egyptian soldiers sitting atop their tanks looked on.
This is the first time that Egypt's security forces have refrained from intervening in protests outside the Israeli embassy reflecting the country's anger over the deaths but also over a statement by Israel's Defence Minister Ehud Barak to the effect the Egyptian military was "losing its grip" over the Sinai.
When Egypt summoned the Israeli attache (the ambassador was out of town) and threatened to recall its own from Tel Aviv, Barak soon changed his tune saying, "Israel regrets the deaths of the Egyptian officers that occurred during the attacks along the Israeli-Egyptian border… The peace treaty between Israel and Egypt is of great importance and strategic value for the continued stability of the Middle East." Moreover, the Israeli government now admits that the Egyptians were probably killed in the crossfire.
Peace treaty
The Egyptian government is unimpressed. It is demanding an official apology in writing, a deadline for the joint probe and monetary compensation. Showing that it ‘means business' it has unilaterally suspended the constraints put upon the numbers of Egyptian soldiers permitted to be based in Sinai under Camp David and vowed to "take protective measures and strengthen security at the border with the necessary forces capable of deterring alleged infiltrators as well as responding to any activity by the Israeli military." And, according to the DEBKAFile website owned by people with links to the Mossad, Washington has made efforts to diffuse tensions between the two sides by agreeing to renegotiate the Camp David demilitarisation clause that ties Egypt's hands.
Behind the scenes diplomacy may have helped calm things down in the corridors of power but it is yet to be seen how the Egyptian people will respond, although this will no doubt become clear following next Friday's prayers. It doesn't help that at least three of the Egyptian victims apparently had ties to the Muslim Brotherhood which is no fan of Israel at the best of times.
On the other hand, I believe the vast majority of Egyptians, while not averse to cancelling the peace treaty with Israel — which is hardly worth the paper it's written on as far as they're concerned — are unprepared for conflict. They understand that the country has enough internal problems to worry about with elections coming up and must prioritise getting the economy back on its feet.
It's yet to be seen how this diplomatic crisis will play out — we'll know more on Friday — but even if it dies down, Israel has received a giant wake-up call not to mess with Egyptians… or else! In the event, Egypt decides to kill the treaty down the road, Jordan will no doubt follow. At a time when Israeli-Turkish relations are frigid, Israel is potentially facing isolation within a hostile environment. I can only hope that this new chilly reality will scare the Israelis towards a comprehensive Middle East peace.
-This commentary was published in The Gulf News on 23/08/2011
-Linda S. Heard is a specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She can be contacted at lheard@gulfnews.com Some of the comments may be considered for publication

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