JERUSALEM — A deadly border incident this month that drew a threat by Egypt to recall its ambassador to Israel has starkly revealed the changed political terrain in the relationship between the two countries.
Israeli officials who relied on former president Hosni Mubarak as a partner in upholding the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty are now contending with the newly assertive voice of public opinion in Egypt and its influence on that country’s leadership.
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.
That balance could shift with the upheavals in the Arab world and a souring of Israel’s relations with Turkey following a deadly Israeli raid last year on a Turkish ship leading an aid flotilla to Gaza.
“If you do a balance sheet at the end of August 2011, obviously there is a worsening in Israel’s strategic balance,” said Oded Eran, a former ambassador to Jordan and director of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. “Turkey is not what it used to be in terms of relations with Israel, nor is Egypt.”
Nevertheless, Egypt’s military leadership has a history of contacts with Israel. It has committed itself to upholding the peace treaty and kept lines of communication open to the Israelis during the recent crisis.
“The fact is that the two sides, on the level of leadership, on the professional side, continue the dialogue, and we continue to use Egypt as a go-between with Hamas, so the channels are still open,” Eran said, referring to the militant Islamist group that rules Gaza.
But with elections scheduled this fall in Egypt, popular sentiment could be a significant factor in the stance of a new civilian leadership toward Israel. And Israeli policies toward the Palestinians, which have angered many Egyptians, could well affect the public mood.
“Basically, the interests [of both countries] remain the same,” said Elie Podeh, an expert on Egypt and its relations with Israel at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He noted that the peace treaty has strategic and economic value for both sides and is backed by generous aid to Egypt from Washington — a strong incentive for it to maintain the accord.
At the same time, Podeh argued, the changes in the region should prompt Israel to put forward a “substantive peace initiative” to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians, which has fueled popular anti-Israeli sentiment in Egypt and other Arab countries.
“If we want to somehow soften the criticism in the Arab world, and specifically in Egypt, we should adopt a different policy,” Podeh said. “Sometimes we don’t understand the depth of their commitment to the Palestinian issue.”
Anger at Israel stoked by the border shooting is still simmering in Egypt. Hundreds of people demonstrated Friday near the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, demanding the expulsion of the ambassador.
Ben-Eliezer, the former defense minister, said that given the new realities in Egypt, Israel should go out of its way to smooth over differences with its neighbor, despite genuine concern about security along their shared border.
“We have to make every effort to keep our relations with the Egyptians as normal as we possibly can,” Ben-Eliezer said. “This is an Arab superpower. Who knows what the next government there will look like? We should try, as much as possible, to keep it business as usual.”