Friday night, Feb. 11, as Cairo's Tahrir Square rejoiced over Hosni Mubarak exit, Israel counted the cost of losing its most important strategic partner in the region.
Thirty-two years of peace with Egypt leave Israel militarily unprepared for the unknown and unexpected on their 270-kilometer long southern border: the current generation of Israeli combatants and commanders has no experience of desert combat, its armor is tailored for operation on its most hostile fronts: Iran, Lebanon's Hizballah and Syria; it is short of intelligence on the Egyptian army and its commanders and, above all, no clue to the new rulers' intentions regarding Cairo's future relations with Israel and security on their Sinai border.
The Israeli Defense Forces are trained and equipped to confront Iran and fight on the mountainous terrain of Lebanon and Syria. After signing peace with Egypt in 1979, Israel scrapped the combat brigades trained for desert warfare, whose last battle was fought in the 1973 war, and stopped treating the Egyptian army as a target of military intelligence. Israel's high command consequently knows little or nothing about any field commanders who might lead units if they were to be deployed in Sinai.
Israel's policy-makers and military strategists are meanwhile acting on two basic assumptions:
1. Egypt's new military rulers will not be keen to lose the US $1.3 billion military aid package or their access to state of the art technology, and the Obama administration will make continued assistance conditional on upholding the peace treaty with Israel.
debkafile's military and Washington sources are not absolutely sure President Obama will lay down this condition or that, if he does, the Egyptian army will accept it. Even if the peace relations are left in place during the regime's first uncertain two or three months in Cairo, it is by no means certain they will survive thereafter.
The new rulers may be influenced by oil-rich Saudi Arabia's latest policy turn. As debkafile reported exclusively Thursday, Feb. 10, King Abdullah was so incensed by Washington's abandonment of his friend and ally Hosni Mubarak that he ordered the kingdom's diplomatic and military ties with Iran upgraded and strengthened. It is anyone's guess today whether the generals in Cairo opt for Washington or decide to patch up Mubarak's quarrel with the ayatollahs instead.
Riyadh can easily afford to make up for the loss of American aid to Egypt. Abdullah made that same offer to Mubarak if he stood fast against American pressure for his resignation, promising him a Saudi dollar for American dollar.
2. Israel is counting on Gen. Omar Suleiman – overlord of Egypt's intelligence branches and for eight days, Mubarak's Vice President – to keep faith after many years of close cooperation in safeguarding the peace relationship. Suleiman is one of the top three members of the High Army Council now ruling Egypt, alongside Defense Minister Field Marshal Mohammed Tantawi and Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Sami Al-Anan.
debkafile: Israel may be barking up the wrong tree. When Suleiman was elevated to VP, Jerusalem hoped he would come out of the Egyptian uprising as the coming man. Friday, Mubarak's resignation left him stripped of his new title.
His footing in the top army command council is far from certain. It is to be expected that once firmly in power, the top generals will start jockeying for the top spot. Suleiman and Tantawi have long been rivals and Mubarak often stepped in to resolve their arguments, usually in the former's favor which the latter won't forget. Since Tantawi is no fan of Israel, Suleiman may decide to promote his own chances by avoiding being seen as overly pro-Israeli or pro-American. Jerusalem may therefore find a closed door when seeking him out.
This is bound to happen soon because of the chaotic free-for-all launched in Sinai while all eyes were on Cairo.
Indeed while a military coup was in progress in the Egyptian capital, Iran, Hamas and Al Qaeda's Middle East networks were fully engaged in violently reducing the Egyptian presence outside the southern Sharm el-Sheik pocket and beginning a process of annexation to the Gaza Strip starting in North Sinai. This is part of Iran's new strategy, seized on during the upsets in Cairo, to expand the Hamas state and shift the crux of Palestinian governance from Ramallah to Gaza City.
While this was going on, Hamas and Al Qaeda terrorists along with drug and human traffickers were free to infiltrate Israel, using the flow of thousands of illegal job-seekers smuggled across the lawless Sinai border.
Even the limited control Suleiman asserted over this traffic has gone.
The Netanyahu government in Jerusalem must therefore think fast and make quick decisions about Sinai. Will the military regime in Cairo take action to bring Sinai under control? Or will Israel be reduced to sending drones or special forces across the border for covert action to cut down the threats building up to its security?
Suddenly, Israel finds itself in a situation akin to the US-led forces in Afghanistan, which have in the last year stepped up their drone attacks on Taliban and al Qaeda strongholds in Waziristan, to the detriment of US relations with Pakistan.
Our military sources note that Field Marshall Tantawi has never attached much strategic importance to the Sinai Peninsula, which is why Mubarak transferred responsibility for its security from the army to Suleiman. Its reversion to the army and the field marshal would be bad news for Israel and its future relations with Egypt.