Egypt and Israel: Troubled Peace

08/25/2011 12:07 pm ET | Updated Oct 25, 2011

The renewed Hamas-Israel fighting along the border between Gaza and Israel sheds light yet again on the fragile Israel-Egypt relationship. This time, it is a distinctly red light. This is bad news to all those who wish to see a more stable Middle East.

It is arguably believed in Israel that the muted Israeli reaction to the latest Palestinian round of attacks on civilian Israeli targets, is largely due to a strategic decision of Netanyahu and Barak not to put in danger the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. The question aroused by many in Israel is whether the treaty is a piece of paper only or a reflection of a state of peace on the ground.

Some historic context is needed here. The Sadat visit in Jerusalem, preceded as it was by the peace feelers sent by then P.M. Menachem Begin, led to three most significant and enduring
strategic results:

First, it has been a sobering experience for the vast majority of Israelis
that peace was possible, and not just a subject for nostalgic songs. The feeling that peace was simply impossible strengthened to the point of obsession in Israelis' sense of siege and loneliness. On the other hand, the new attraction of Sinai with its great beaches and endless territory of stoic quiet was a revelation for an entire generation of young Israelis that, until then, viewed the specter of war as an inevitable part of their life. From a political perspective, it was of immense importance that a nationalist government was the one agreeing to a complete territorial concession, including forcible removal of Israeli civilians. This was the beginning of a long, and for many, a painful and continuing process of making the unavoidable compromise between ideology and reality.

Second, the peace treaty has also had a profound effect on the nature of Arab attitudes towards Israel, as it broke the taboo on any political dialogue with Israel. In a clear way, Sadat normalized the hitherto abnormal conflict. A one dimensional conflict, characterized by boycott and lack of recognition only, became a conflict in which violence coincided with dialogue. That may not seem too much, but it's a big deal in the troubled reality of the Middle East.

Third, with Egypt out of the cycle of war with Israel, the possibility of an all-out regional
conflict, such as the wars of 1948-9, 1967 and 1973 seemed unlikely and out of context. This was great news to Israel and Egypt in the first place, but also to some other Arab countries which dreaded the scenario of being pushed again to a war with Israel, whose consequences could be devastating to them.

This was bad news to militant Arabs such as Iraq under Saddam which failed to mobilize the Arab world to join in the missile attacks on Israel during operation''desert storm'' and Syria whenever the Lebanese situation got out of hand as in 1982 and 2006. The same was with the PLO whose military confrontations with Israel never evolved into a full-scale Arab-Israeli war.

As years went on, and the initial euphoria of the peace treaty gradually evaporated, the ''cold peace'' between Israel and Egypt, while far from being a demonstration of cultural and societal coexistence between the two peoples, continued to be a strategic bulwark against an uncontrollable military confrontation between Israel and its remaining Arab enemies. Many Israelis who have taken for granted the reality of no-war and an open border with Egypt
seemed to downplay the difficulties of the Mubarak regime whenever violence erupted along Israel's Gaza and Lebanon borders. This has never been, though, the attitude of successive Israeli governments, of Likud, as well as Labor and Kadima, which always were at pains to maintain the channels of diplomatic and intelligence cooperation with Egypt.

Now, the current Israeli government is faced with the greatest challenge to the stability of the relations with Egypt. Since the ouster of the Mubarak regime, the Sinai peninsula is fast becoming a safe heaven to hostile elements, mainly jihadists, maybe also pro-Al-Qaeda elements, as central Egyptian authority has greatly eroded.

The mortal attacks from Sinai on Israeli civilians have the potential of turning the hitherto peaceful border into a war zone. Tragically enough, five Egyptian security personnel were caught in the cross-fire between the IDF and Palestinian terrorists.

An Israeli apology came fast, but the Egyptians demand more. The Israelis are likely to accept a joint inquiry by both armies, but they are expecting also a decisive Egyptian action to uproot the causes of the recent flare-up, and that means a military operation against the terrorists in Sinai. Such an action should include an effective Egyptian protection of the natural gas pipeline, which has become an all too easy target to terrorists. The Israelis accepted Egypt's request to send to Sinai military reinforcements -- something that did not go without strong criticisms among hawkish elements within Netanyahu's coalition. They have the right, therefore, to expect that these forces will do their job. On a more episodal note, the Israelis are indignant over the fact that the Egyptian authorities allowed demonstrators to remove Israel's flag from
Israeli installations in Cairo.

What is not episodal at all is what is at stake here. No less than the the peace, as fragile as it is, between two of the most important states of the Middle East, in fact the fate of the entire region.