Keep the Peace, Mr. Morsi

Gershom Gorenberg

I admit to being AWOL from South Jerusalem recently. So I’m catching up, posting several columns I’ve published elsewhere in the past week or so. This one is from The American Prospect – written before the embassy riot, but all the more relevant now:

Dear President Morsi,

I know you have a lot on your mind….

So relations with Israel may be at the edge of your peripheral vision. Still, I hope you’ll take this Israeli’s suggestion: You should do more to preserve Egyptian-Israeli peace. Rather than imply commitment to the peace treaty, express it clearly. Egypt’s welfare depends on it, as do future Mideast peace efforts.

In domestic terms, you certainly did not waste the first crisis on the Israeli border. Just a month ago, the armed forces still had more power than you did. Then militants attacked a base at the eastern edge of the Sinai, killed 16 Egyptian soldiers, and crossed into Israel, where Israeli troops finished them off. Stunning the world, you used the blow to the army’s prestige to dismiss the top commanders and to void the military decree limiting your authority. Afterward, the army began its crackdown on Islamic extremists in the chaotic Sinai, sending troops, and reportedly tanks and helicopters.

There was a glitch, though. The Israeli government has an unavoidable ambivalence: It wants Egypt to impose order in the Sinai, so that neither jihadists nor Palestinian militants can attack Israel from there. But to prevent war between Israel and Egypt, the 1979 peace treaty restricts the forces and weapons that Egypt can deploy in the Sinai. Changes have to be coordinated with Israel. This time, it seems, your side skipped consultations, at least at the outset.

Perhaps, as one analyst suggested to me, this was because the Egyptian generals who handled contacts with Israel for years had just lost their jobs. But any Israeli government would be nervous about the Muslim Brotherhood winning an Egyptian election, and the all more so the hawks in power in Israel today. The troop movements did not reduce that jumpiness. The Netanyahu government called Washington for help, after which, it seems, Washington phoned Cairo. Your defense minister, Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, reportedly called Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and assured him that Egypt is committed to the peace treaty. The defense consultations resumed.

Israeli officialdom now sounds deliberately calm. When I asked a defense source this week about Egyptian military moves in the Sinai, he replied, “Security dialogue between Egypt and Israel is entrenched in the peace treaty.” That’s true, and it evades the question of whether the treaty was temporarily ignored. A Foreign Ministry source told me, “Maybe here or there they increased their military forces or assets without consulting with us. If it happened, it was for a limited time.” In other words: There was no crisis, not even a little flap. You might conclude that even this hawkish Israeli government has been reassured.

Or has it?

Read the rest here.