Egypt hands Jerusalem a dilemma

The decision by Egypt’s new president, Mohammed Morsi, to retire the defence minister and the army’s chief of staff heightened the internal debate over how Israel should respond to the profound changes in the Egyptian power structure.

Mr Morsi’s decision last weekend to replace Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi and General Sami Annan came only days after he fired three senior generals, including the head of military intelligence and the commander of the North Sinai region, for failing to anticipate the attack by Global Jihad terrorists on outposts on the Egypt-Israel border, in which 16 Egyptian border guards were killed.

Since former President Hosni Mubarak’s departure 18 months ago, Field Marshal Tantawi, as head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, was the de facto ruler of Egypt.

The military chiefs were also the main point of contact for Israel and their weakening is a cause for concern in Jerusalem.

The recent statement by senior government officials in Cairo that the security protocols of the Camp David peace accords between the countries must be changed to allow more Egyptian forces to operate in the Sinai Peninsula against Jihadist terror will also be carefully scrutinised by Israel.

Israel has already authorised the Egyptian army to temporarily add seven battalions of ground troops in Sinai and last week the Egyptian Air Force attacked targets in Sinai for the first time since the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The air attacks were co-ordinated with Israel.

One senior Israeli defence official said: “We mustn’t forget that, for Israel, the agreement that Egypt would not have a significant military presence east of the Suez Canal, was a major strategic achievement and if we allow the Egyptian Army back into Sinai, we will have lost that. That is a huge dilemma…”

Former National Security Adviser, Major-General (res.) Giora Eiland, who as head of the planning directorate in the IDF’s General Staff was in charge of all military co-ordination with Egypt, said that “while what is happening in Egypt is not good for Israel, it is not as bad as it seems and there are some bright points.”

One of those, he says, is that “since Morsi is linked to Hamas in Gaza via the Muslim Brotherhood, they will have a joint interest in stamping out the Jihadists. We can see already that Hamas is feeling the pressure.”
Despite this, Mr Eiland counsels caution over changing the Camp David Accords. “Some people say it is an outdated document… but I think it is a well-written agreement and we should stick to the principle that Israel can allow the Egyptians to temporarily bring in forces, with an emphasis on ‘temporarily’…
“What Egypt lacks to fight terror in Sinai is not more forces, but better intelligence and political willpower. Maybe with Morsi this is about to change.”

Last updated: 11:13am, August 16 2012