Following President Mohamed Morsy’s firing of Hussein Tantawi, head of the formerly ruling military council, and other leading generals on Sunday, Israeli media commentators have reacted with cautious suspense toward the shake-up, with most believing that Israeli-Egyptian relations are unlikely to worsen as a result of the move.
Since then, they have watched with disdain following two concerning developments. First, on Monday, Morsy’s legal adviser Mohamed Gadallah told Al-Masry Al-Youm that Morsy was investigating the possibility of amending the Egypt-Israel peace treaty to give Egypt greater control over the Sinai Peninsula, which is currently subject to heavy armament restrictions in accordance with the treaty. The second worrying development came Thursday morning, when Haaretz broke the story that Egypt was moving arms into certain areas of Sinai without obtaining prior Israeli approval. The article reported that Israeli officials retroactively gave permission for the deployments to avoid a confrontation over the matter.
Although it remains to be seen how Israeli commentators will react to the Haaretz report, most have expressed tempered optimism regarding Morsy’s replacement of his top military generals. Some, however, remain overtly skeptical.
“If it won’t be Tantawi’s number from the other side, then it will be someone else’s,” says Roni Daniel, commentator for military and security affairs at Channel 2 News, Israel’s most widely watched news network. Israeli officials had developed a good working relationship with Tantawi following former President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation in February of last year, even if they did not like him much in the beginning, according to some media indications.
As Dan Margalit, an Israeli journalist and author writing for the right-leaning Israel Hayom, recalls: “When it became clear that Tantawi would become Mubarak's replacement, there was concern in Jerusalem. Among Egyptian officials, Tantawi was the most chilly toward Israel, detached from all contact with it. A year and a half passed, during which Israeli officials came to view Tantawi differently. Not because Tantawi changed his attitude toward Israel, but rather because Israel saw that there were no alternatives. Israel therefore threw its hopes on Tantawi.”
Daniel, however, predicts that it won’t be difficult to develop similarly good relations with Morsy’s new appointees, even if Morsy and his political circle has not yet agreed to talk to Israel.
“The question is not with whom we talk,” writes Daniel, “but rather if the shared interests between Egypt and Israel are still ones both sides want to preserve. If that’s the case, the Israelis will talk with whoever replaces Tantawi. The security coordination between the countries is continuing, and it’s important to test the new reality by opening up dialogue based on shared interests. This is an Egyptian interest as much as an Israeli one.”
Moreover, Israel already has relations with some of the new generals. The most prominent example is newly appointed Egyptian Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who will take over as head of the Armed Forces. A former military intelligence chief, Sisi has maintained working relations with his counterparts in Israel, writes Alex Fishman, a defense commentator for Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s most widely distributed daily. Fishman points out that Sisi is also a critic of the Jewish state, however.
A major reason for great Israeli relations with Egypt’s generals is the massive US aid, to the tune of almost US$2 billion a year, most of which goes to directly to the Egyptian military. “The new guys [appointed by Morsy to replace the ousted military chiefs] come from the same place as their predecessors,” journalist Yaakov Lapin of the Jerusalem Post quotes an anonymous official in Israel’s defense establishment as saying. “The new appointments grew up in an Egyptian Army that received US assistance. They will also receive US cash.”
Egypt is second only to Israel as the greatest recipient of US foreign aid, which began soon after the 1979 treaty was signed with Israel in order to keep Egypt loyal to the treaty.
However, Oded Granot at Maariv, Israel’s second most widely distributed Hebrew daily, laments that military cooperation is not enough. The Arab affairs commentator says there needs to be contact at the political level as well, something that Morsy has resisted for fear of appearing to encourage “normalization” of relations with Israel.
“Egypt’s change of security and military leadership obligates Israel to open new lines of communication with new individuals,” he writes. “Not all are faces known for their friendship with Israel. But the main problem of Israeli-Egyptian relations in the Morsy period continues to be the political echelon’s refusal to have any contact with us.”
To make matters worse, Egypt's Information Minister Salah Abdel Maqsoud, a Muslim Brotherhood member, said this week: "This entity [Israel] stole Palestinian lands, and for this reason we will not normalize relations with it until those lands are freed."
The information minister did not specify if those lands include territory conquered in 1967, or all of Israel, reports Haaretz, and the fact that Maqsoud referred to Israel as an entity — as does Hezbollah, Hamas and other groups that refuse to recognize Israel’s existence — gives cause for concern about whether real dialogue is attainable.
Commentators believe Egypt’s current military operation in Sinai constitutes a test for Morsy’s intentions. To enable Egypt’s ongoing military operation in Sinai, Egypt moved in heavy weapons such as tanks and artillery banned under the peace treaty. Ehud Yaari, Arab affairs commentator for Channel 2, questions if Morsy will direct the forces to withdraw once the operation is complete, or “leave them there, something which would be unilateral and against the peace treaty.”
Writing for Israel Hayom, Liad Porat, professor of Middle East history at Haifa University, seems to agree. “What seems to the casual observer now as cooperation or collaboration between Egypt and Israel on security matters in Sinai may soon become a serious military nuisance for Israel,” he writes.
Daniel comments, however, that the situation is more complex: If Egypt withdraws its troops immediately after completing the operation, the militants will have a chance to rebuild their forces. Therefore, it could be in Israel’s interest for Egypt to maintain a long-term military presence in Sinai.
As is often the case in Israel, however, some newspapers play on the fear that every gain for Egypt’s Islamists brings the two countries one step closer to war. Referring to Morsy’s success at overthrowing large remnants of Mubarak’s regime, Boaz Bismuth of Israel Hayom attempts to justify a double standard for Arab countries versus the rest of the world. Morsy’s firing of the old guard could be seen as one step closer to creating a true democracy. “In any other situation, we could have congratulated Egypt on some of its changes,” he writes.
“If the changes had happened anywhere else in the world, we may have even applauded them. But in our neighborhood, if anything can go wrong, it usually does.” Bismuth goes on to warn that unlike Tantawi and [former Chief of Staff Sami] Anan, the new appointees may be “more loyal to Morsy than they are to the [Camp David] Accords — something that is definitely a warning sign for Jerusalem.”
Israel Hayom’s Isi Leibler, columnist and former head of Australia’s Jewish community, is perhaps the most alarmist of all, insisting, contrary to most Israeli commentators, that Morsy is determined the scrap the peace treaty altogether.
“We mustn't fall into a trap of illusions. Despite Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy's tough response to last week's terror attack in Sinai, the mass dismissals in the top echelon of the Egyptian military prove that Morsy's Muslim Brotherhood is committed to revoking Egypt's peace treaty with Israel,” he writes.
For most Israeli commentators, however, the situation is not quite that alarming and the Muslim Brotherhood is not looking for war with the Jewish state, despite anxiety about the uncertainty. As Margalit puts it: “The peace between Israel and Egypt will hold, but there will be tougher tests than in the past. When will Morsy withdraw the troops from Sinai that he sent there with Israeli consent? Will he open the Rafah border crossing with the Gaza Strip? How hard will he fight Bedouin tribes in Sinai if terrorists there only attack Israelis, and not Egyptian soldiers? And how will he respond if Israel, using its right to self-defense, strikes terrorists in desert areas under Egyptian sovereignty?”