Israeli officials say that the behaviour of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi is “perhaps the biggest achievement for Israel in the entire operation” as the Muslim Brotherhood leader emerged as the mediator between Israel and Hamas.
When, in recent weeks, Hamas openly joined in with missile attacks on Israel, it was widely understood that the Palestinian movement felt immune from retaliation because of Egypt’s backing. “Hamas were acting as if they were wearing an Egyptian-made flak jacket,” said an Israeli defence official, “and we couldn’t allow that to continue”. While Egypt was not mentioned in the original statements made by Israel’s leaders at the start of Operation Pillar of Defence last week, the meaning was clear when Defence Minister Ehud Barak called upon “the region’s leaders to act with consideration and level-headedness to restore the quiet to the area”.
The reaction of the Morsi government was one of the main concerns of Israel’s decision-makers before launching the operation: the Muslim Brotherhood is ideologically close to Hamas. One source close to the deliberations said: “Hamas gambled by attacking us openly; in return we took a calculated risk. We believed that Morsi would not do anything drastic. He knows that, for strategic reasons, Egypt must cling to the peace with Israel, even if he doesn’t like us.” So far it seems that it was a risk worth taking.
Following the Israeli strikes on Gaza, Egypt recalled its ambassador to Israel and Mr Morsi repeatedly condemned “Israeli aggression”. This was a limited diplomatic measure, however, and Mr Morsi has expended time, effort and political credibility in trying to bring about a ceasefire. President Shimon Peres expressed Israel’s satisfaction at the role played by Mr Morsi when he said this week: “I didn’t expect that he would truly try to limit the tension, it is a surprise.”
While the Egyptian president did not speak directly to his Israeli counterpart, his frequent phone conversations this week with US President Barack Obama were part of the indirect dialogue between him and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In response to calls by his own supporters in Egypt to do more for Hamas, Mr Morsi sent Prime Minister Hisham Kandil on a visit to Gaza on Sunday, during which Israel temporarily halted air-strikes. Mr Kandil refused to allow Hamas to resupply its forces with arms.
Perhaps the most surprising comment came this week from Aatef Salem, Egypt’s ambassador to Israel, who gave a conciliatory interview to the daily Al-Watan. He said: “The elites in Egypt and the Egyptian public believe that Israel wants to warmonger against Egypt. These thoughts have no basis in reality. The peace with Egypt is one of Israel’s foundations of national security and they won’t give it up.”