It’s now Passover week in Israel, and it’s natural for Egypt to be in the air. The holiday celebrates the Israelites’ liberation from serfdom to Pharaoh over three thousand years ago, which launched the trouble-fraught but ultimately successful forty-year trek to freedom in the Promised Land.
But Egypt keeps being intertwined with Israel’s current affairs, too; and, just like back then, in ways that are generally difficult. As in the rocket fired last Thursday morning from Egyptian Sinai at Eilat, Israel’s port and tourist center on the Red Sea. As in the explosion that hit Egypt’s gas pipeline to Israel and Jordan on Monday — the fourteenth to do so, all of them sabotage, in about a year. The pipeline, too, is in Sinai, and has been closed since a previous explosion on February 5.
It’s no accident, of course, that both violent events were associated with Sinai. Since the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime last year and the partial implosion of the Egyptian state, the peninsula has become a badlands dominated by global-jihad groups and local Bedouin gangs, some of them also ideologically jihadist. Last August a terror cell crossed into Israel from Sinai and killed eight.
In that case Israel struck back and killed the cell’s leaders — in Gaza, where they were based. But despite the growing incidents and danger, Israel — in a somewhat Orwellian bind — is loath to act in Sinai itself and so far has not. The reason is a fear of endangering peace — that is, the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty signed in 1979, long considered a bedrock of stability in the region.
That treaty, too, entailed a kind of exodus from Egypt — the evacuation of all the settlements Israel had built in Sinai since wresting it from Egypt in the 1967 Six-Day War. This time, the recompense for leaving Egypt was supposed to be peace — along with a guaranteed, continued supply of natural gas. The latter has now lapsed. As for the former, peace, it endured but only in the coldest of forms; and now, with Islamists dominating the parliament and presidential elections set for May and June, it may be hanging by only the slenderest of threads.
Meanwhile Egypt’s currently ruling military council — which says it will step down after the elections — has announced that it’s beefing up forces in Sinai in an attempt to put a lid on the terror, which is seen as endangering Egypt as well. The move is with Israel’s consent, and is supposed to amount eventually to seven battalions. That’s more than was allowed by the 1979 treaty, which was supposed to keep Sinai demilitarized. In agreeing to these terms and bending the treaty, Israel — especially if the Islamists take power — may be indulging a hope that is close to desperate.
One veteran Israeli military commentator urges realism, saying that when it comes to holding down terror from Sinai, “it’s clear that the Egyptians won’t be doing the job for us.” Instead, if the policy of retaliating against Gaza targets doesn’t work, he says Israel “will have to mull the option of allowing [its forces] to operate in the Sinai” — especially if the alternative is “grave economic damage to tourism and port activity in Eilat and vicinity as a result of rocket fire.” To which he could have added, of course, the endangerment of life and limb.
In any case, how this situation plays out will affect Israel’s evolving view of its position in the region, especially the viability of peace treaties and the wisdom of territorial concessions. But what is already clear is that — as long as jihadist and xenophobic themes hold sway — Egypt cannot just be left, and will have to be coped with.