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Even as Egypt’s generals continue their violent crackdown on supporters of deposed President Mohamed Morsi, Israel has been lobbying the international community to give the military its full backing. Israeli policymakers are understandably nervous about the Muslim Brotherhood, and they take as a given that Islamist group wants to see the Jewish state’s destruction. But security and intelligence cooperation between Israel and Egypt actually thrived during Morsi’s presidency. And particularly in the wake of Monday's massacre of 25 Egyptian policemen in Rafah, a city on the border of the Gaza Strip in North Sinai, Israel might find that it was better off with Morsi in power.
For Israel, the worst possible result of the political upheaval in Cairo is chaos along its southern border. The Sinai Peninsula stayed relatively calm for decades after Israel returned it to Egypt in 1982, following the countries’ 1979 peace treaty. Terrorism, smuggling, and cross-border provocations did not begin with the collapse of the Mubarak regime, but Sinai began to descend into total lawlessness as the police state apparatus melted away around the time of the February 2011 revolution. And the security situation there has dramatically worsened since the military’s removal of Morsi on July 3, after which there has been a marked uptick in deadly attacks against Egyptian soldiers and police in Sinai.
The violence in Sinai could soon spill over into Israel. Israel remains an obvious target for jihadis, who see it as an occupier of Muslim land. This is especially true for Gaza-based terrorist groups that operate in Sinai, such as the Mujahedeen Shura Council in the Environs of Jerusalem. Moreover, some jihadi groups in Sinai, such as Ansar Jerusalem, view cross-border attacks as holding a second beneficial purpose: showing the Egyptian military’s weakness and inability to protect its borders. Indeed, jihadi action over the past two years has purposefully attempted to embarrass the Egyptian military, expose Israeli-Egyptian cooperation, and draw Israel into a cross-border response. As with the increased jihadi activity in Sinai since the military full took control, Sinai terrorist groups may opt to double down on this strategy of drawing Israel into their fight.
In raids against Israel in 2011 and 2012, attackers wore replica Egyptian military uniforms and drove Egyptian military vehicles both to confuse Israeli responders and to create the perception that the Egyptian military was involved in such incidents and that the Israelis were shooting at Egyptian soldiers. An airstrike in July against an Ansar Jerusalem rocket squad in Sinai may or may not have been carried out by Israel, but Sinai’s jihadis had every reason to make this claim as a way of pushing back against the military and driving a wedge between the generals and the people.
Israel’s main fear is that Sinai-based jihadists will target civilian planes bound for Israel’s southern tourist city of Eilat. In fact, on August 8, such a plan was in the works, forcing Israel to shut the airport for several hours. Less than a week later, an Israeli Iron Dome battery intercepted a rocket fired from Sinai at Eilat for the first time. Although Israel should be glad that it foiled the attack and that Egypt made little noise about the use of Iron Dome so close to its border, Israel should be even more worried that it had to deploy the system in the first place.
Amid today’s turmoil, it is worth remembering that, while Morsi was president, political relations between Israel and Egypt were, if not friendly, certainly stable. The Brotherhood leader wanted nothing to do with his Zionist counterparts, so he left the relationship entirely to his military and intelligence branches. Effectively, Morsi sat atop a cooperative partnership over which he had no input. This dynamic helped tamp down on any Brotherhood or Islamist criticism of the Egyptian-Israeli relationship.
Indeed, the most difficult point in Egyptian-Israeli relations following Hosni Mubarak's ouster was not, as many would have guessed, when war broke out between Hamas and Israel in November 2012, a time when Morsi was in control. Despite the Brotherhood’s affinity for Hamas, the Morsi government worked with both sides to mediate and to guarantee a cease-fire. At the time, observers noted little difference between the Morsi government’s approach and that of the Mubarak regime during the 2008–09 Israeli operation in Gaza.
Rather, the closest Israel and Egypt came to a break in relations was in the autumn of 2011, when Egypt's military was calling all the shots. In August 2011, terrorists tunneled from Gaza into Sinai and then on to Eilat, where they began attacking Israeli civilians and soldiers. Israeli military forces responded, accidentally killing several Egyptian border guards. Egypt’s military-appointed prime minister initially called for a change in Egyptian-Israeli relations, saying that the Camp David accords between the two countries were “not sacred.” The following month, a violent mob breached the Israeli embassy in Cairo.
Since Morsi’s ouster, the Brotherhood has returned to blaming Israel for Egypt’s domestic troubles. It has also specifically criticized Egyptian-Israeli security cooperation in the Sinai -- cooperation that had been ongoing throughout Morsi’s term. Now that it no longer has to worry about governing the country, and without its man overseeing bilateral cooperation, the Brotherhood is free to harp on its favorite foes across the border.
Meanwhile, the Brotherhood is hardly alone in its antagonism. After their successful petition campaign against Morsi, the anti-Islamist protesters that make up Egypt’s Tamarod (Rebellion) movement have set their sights on throwing out the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. Both Egyptian Islamists and secular nationalists generally oppose aspects, if not the entirety, of the Egyptian-Israeli relationship. Islamists, however, already have significant credibility with the public on the issue; it is the secular nationalist camp that tends to be more vocal in its opposition.
Israel’s concern over the growing threat in Sinai has led to its unprecedented approval of Egyptian troop and equipment deployments east of the Suez Canal, in excess of the limitations of the peace treaty. But even with Israel’s support, the military will have trouble calming the peninsula. Since the coup, Egypt’s military has had to put out fires, often literally, all over the country. And although Israel may have looked favorably on Egypt’s efforts to crush the Brotherhood protesters, the high death tolls brought on by the crackdown will not only increase violent opposition but also likely spread it to other cities and towns.
Israel’s strategic imperative since the fall of Mubarak has been to maintain its relationship with Egypt as best it can. For this reason, Israel will continue to urge the United States to keep up its military aid to Egypt, even as hundreds are killed in the streets. This strategic outlook, however, resulted in the same request being made during the political turmoil in January, even as videos surfaced of Morsi, then president, ranting against Israel and Jews more broadly.
The connection between Israeli strategy and U.S. aid was addressed directly by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on July 14, when he stated that such aid is a cornerstone of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. Not only is this wrong, but such mistaken conventional wisdom belies the fact that Egyptian-Israeli cooperation benefits Egypt as well as the United States and Israel. Given the broad opposition to Israel in Egyptian society, it is fair to presume that many soldiers and officers share these views personally. But Egypt works with Israel because security cooperation in Sinai protects Egyptian lives, property, and territory. This will remain true whether or not the Americans cut the generals loose.