Monday night, April 24, the Obama administration stepped in to damp down the military frictions developing between Jerusalem and Cairo, which were fanned further this week by a dispute over the suspension of Egyptian gas to Israel. Earlier that day, the Chairman of Egypt’s Supreme Military Council, SCAF, Field Marshal Muhammad Tantawi said: “If anyone comes near Egypt’s border, we will break their leg.” Egypt’s Second Army chief, Gen. Muhammad Higazi added: “Aggressors should reconsider before thinking of attacking any part of Egyptian territory.”
Their remarks, delivered during a live fire exercise, Nasr 7, conducted by the Second Egyptian Army in Sinai, were clearly addressed to Israel and the IDF. In Washington, debkafile’s sources report that President Barack Obama, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were warned by their military and intelligence analysts that a military clash between Egypt and Israel was hovering on the brink. There were two potential triggers: The gas issue which suddenly surfaced this week and advance warnings that Sinai Bedouin, Palestinian extremists – some from Gaza, and al Qaeda gangs were plotting terrorist attacks and protest acts for Israel’s 64th Independence Day this Thursday, April 26.
Their object: to whip up a storm to blow up the 1979 Egyptian-Israel peace accords.
Their plans entail sending terrorists across the Egyptian Sinai border for attacks on Israelis to generate Israeli military incursions into Egyptian territory in hot pursuit of the perpetrators.
This almost happened on April 5, after a Palestinian Popular Resistance Committees gang fired two Grad missiles at Eilat from Sinai. The IDF was about to sent a small special force across into Sinai for the first time since the peace pacts were signed 33 years ago to waylay the missile team as it headed back to the Gaza Strip. Netanyahu and Barak vetoed the incursion.
Wednesday, the US bid to temper tension was abruptly overturned.
Section 8 of the peace accords strictly bind Egypt to maintain and honor the war memorials for the Israelis who fell in battle in Sinai. On Israel’s Memorial Day for fallen soldiers on the eve of its 64th independence day, Egyptian Islamists and Bedouin groups announced they would advance en masse on the Israeli memorials, erase the Israeli names of Israeli soldiers and fill in the names of Egyptian fallen men.
They are counting on Egyptian military and security forces, which have pretty much lost control of the situation there, failing to guard the Israeli sites and hope by their deep affront to Israel to plunge relations into deep crisis.
That said, Israel too must share some of the blame for the rising tensions this week, most particularly, remarks made by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.
In an interview he gave Monday, April 23 during an official visit to Baku, Azerbaijan, Lieberman declined to repudiate his previous remark that the threat to Israel coming from Egypt was even graver than the threat from Iran.
Nor did the minister confirm or deny reports that the Foreign Ministry had handed Prime Minister Netanyahu a working paper recommending the reconstitution of the pre-peace pact’s Southern Army and deploy its seven divisions on the Egyptian border – as they were during the decades when the two countries were at war.
Only one IDF combat divisions currently guards the border. It too was only posted there after terrorists crossed in from Sinai on Aug. 26, 2011, attacked Eilat highway traffic and murdered eight Israelis.
Chief of Staff Lt. Benny Gantz commented at the time that the border with Egypt was no longer a frontier of peace but of menace.
On Tuesday, April 24, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a radio interview ahead of Independence Day that the Sinai had degenerated into a Wild West land rife with Iranian-aided gangs who smuggled arms and attacked Israel. He expressed hope that the next Egyptian president, whomsoever is elected, will opt for upholding the peace pact with Israel because it is in the interests of both countries.
The strains between Cairo and Jerusalem were further exacerbated this week by the misreporting by Israel media of a dispute concerning the flow of Egyptian gas to Israel. It was falsely presented as affecting the peace accords, when in fact the flow was suspended over a court case airing in Egypt between conflicting business interests and repeated sabotaqe.
As the political rhetoric heated up in both Cairo and Jerusalem, a dose of balm was administered from Washington in both capitals. The Egyptian ambassador in Tel Aviv formally stated that the disagreement was commercial, certainly not political. And the defense ministry’s diplomatic coordinator Amos Gilad was dispatched to Cairo to persuade Egypt’s intelligence chief Murad Mowafi to join forces for calming the upset.
The next 48 hours will be critical.