The Magazine

High Anxiety

Israel’s somber summer—as Syria crumbles, Iran goes nuclear, and the Muslim Brotherhood rides high in Egypt

Aug 20, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 45 • By ELLIOTT ABRAMS
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Morsi himself said and did what was required in the first days. He immediately went to northern Sinai (something Hosni Mubarak hadn’t done for years) in the company of Field Marshal Tantawi, the head of the army. Morsi called the killings “traitorous” and “cowardly” and vowed, “Those who carried out the attack will pay heavily.” Egypt immediately closed the Rafah crossing into Gaza, and Hamas has itself clamped down on the smuggling tunnels linking Gaza and Sinai. So much for the plan, desperately desired by Hamas, to open the Sinai/Gaza border; Morsi had previously seemed sympathetic, but he slammed the doors shut after the attack. Morsi also fired the head of Egypt’s intelligence agency, for Egypt had had access to the same intelligence as the Israelis—but did nothing to stop the attack.

More surprising than the initial jihadist strike, which after all was ultimately aimed at Israel, was the further action two days later: The jihadists attacked five security checkpoints in Sinai. This time the army struck back, firing missiles at the jihadists from helicopter gunships and jets—the first time since the 1973 war that the Egyptians had taken such action in the Sinai. Egyptian troops also attacked on the ground in northern Sinai, about 10 miles from Gaza, targeting what they called “insurgent activity” and claiming to kill 20 or so “terrorists” and destroy three armored cars. If this is accurate, it is a measure of the strength of the jihadist presence—not just men and guns, but armored cars that one must assume had previously been stolen from the Egyptian Army or border police (and that the Egyptian government had previously made no effort to recapture). 

The Israeli praise for this action was immediate. Clearly the IDF was given prior notification and is happily sharing intelligence about jihadists in the Sinai with the Egyptian military. But that cooperation is secret, and whatever Morsi’s reaction, the Brotherhood itself took a different line: The initial jihadist attack that killed 16 Egyptians “can be attributed to Mossad,” the Brothers’ webpage announced. The willingness of the Brotherhood to sustain the peace treaty with Israel must be doubted if this is the stance the group will take toward those actually threatening not just Israel but Egypt. 

What’s next? The jihadist attack and the Egyptian Army’s response might be a turning point. Either Egypt’s new president and its army will get serious about security in the Sinai for the first time in years, or they will recoil from a continuing confrontation with Bedouins, criminals, smugglers, jihadists, and Hamas. This latest jihadist attack is in a certain way a gift: What could better clarify the danger posed to Egypt by extremist Islamists than their murder of 16 Egyptians? What could better allow Morsi and the army to stand up to violent extremism? What could better allow the Brotherhood to separate itself from jihadists? The jihadists were never this bold before, never willing to kill so many Egyptian officers, and they have devised this test of the Brothers carefully, for they know that defeating their attacks requires Israeli-Egyptian cooperation. Will Morsi and the Brotherhood countenance such a thing? Will it be allowed even if it is secret and never mentioned? Will they defend the peace treaty with Israel as actually helping their country’s security? Will they even allow themselves to think such a thought? Or will the Brotherhood keep on blaming the Mossad, adhere to its ingrained hatred of Israel, and choose purity of thought over the responsibilities of governing?

Pessimism is rife in Israel. One day of Egyptian Army attacks on jihadists will change nothing, and few believe a persistent campaign to retake control of Sinai is about to begin. And even the good news about army activity in Sinai can contain bad news for Israel. There is already a call from Cairo to lift or at least modify the restrictions in the Egypt-Israel peace treaty on how many soldiers and what kinds of armaments Egypt can place in Sinai. “Reopen the peace treaty with Israel” is an old Brotherhood demand, and it has been loudly repeated all week in Egypt. That demand takes on a clear logic now, with Israel calling for Cairo to retake control of the peninsula and stop terrorism and applauding the attacks of last week. But with Cairo now in the hands of the Brotherhood, how relaxed can Israel feel about acceding to those requests? Is today’s solution tomorrow’s threat? When the Brothers say “reopen the peace treaty,” they don’t mean “let the army move more men to the east,” they mean “gut the relationship with Israel.” 

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