There is a growing realization in Israel that maintaining ties with post-revolutionary Egypt no longer depends solely on cultivating the relationship with its leaders. Adopting stances that are more acceptable to ordinary Egyptians and the various political forces emerging in that country after Mubarak’s ouster has become important as well.
“There’s a new factor now, the masses, who are setting the pace and dictating moves,” said Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, a veteran politician and former defense minister long known for his relationships with Mubarak and senior Egyptian officials.
The border incident on Aug. 18 was a case in point. After gunmen who crossed into southern Israel from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula killed seven Israelis near the border, Israeli troops who gave chase killed — according to Egyptian accounts — five Egyptian security officers in circumstances still under investigation by both sides.
In initial remarks after the cross-border attack, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak appeared to blame the deadly infiltration on Egyptian authorities, saying that it showed “the weakening of the Egyptian hold on Sinai,” where lawlessness has surged since Mubarak’s ouster.
Barak’s comments and the killing of the Egyptian security personnel drew a furious response in Cairo, where protesters gathered outside the Israeli embassy, presidential candidates jockeying for public support issued fierce condemnations, and the government threatened to recall the Egyptian ambassador to Israel.
To avert a crisis, Barak expressed regret for the deaths of the Egyptian officers and appreciation for Egypt’s role in the bilateral relationship with Israel. He also promised a joint investigation of the border incident, and an Israeli military delegation later flew to Cairo to share preliminary results of the Israeli army’s inquiry.
Sensitivity to the Egyptian response was also evident in Israel’s handling of a subsequent flare-up along the border with the Gaza Strip, where several days of Israeli air strikes and rocket attacks by militants threatened to trigger wider military action. However Israel’s security cabinet decided against a broader military operation, largely out of consideration for the impact such a move would have in Egypt, where public sympathy with the Palestinians runs high.
The new calculations reflect the overriding interest in Israel in preserving the relationship with Egypt and the peace treaty, which Barak said had “great importance and great strategic value for stability in the Middle East.” Egypt, the most populous Arab state, shares a long border with Israel, and the peace accord has for decades been a key component of the strategic balance in the region.