The Israeli military says it is planning a major operation in Gaza that could happen once it receives the go-ahead from “the political echelon.” There are more formidable obstacles to Israeli action, however. Apart from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s relative weakness after he performed poorly in the Second Lebanon War and the unseemly resolve of the U.S. secretary of state to push an unworkable peace process, the U.S.-brokered Israel-Egypt peace accord of 1979 may be the most significant strategic hurdle.
Israel’s desire to end the rocket fire that has rained down on the residents of Sderot since its 2005 withdrawal from Gaza is at odds with the conviction, held by some in Israel, that the Gaza breach of a few weeks ago is a good thing. Egypt is not going to take responsibility for its Arab brethren, and Mubarak is in no hurry to curb Hamas. Like all Arab regimes, Mubarak’s chooses its battles wisely and entirely avoids some fights, especially against Islamists who would rather take on Israel but will go after others if that’s the only option open to them. This is largely why the Egyptians allow Hamas to smuggle rifles, antitank missiles, and explosives into Gaza—not because they are actively supporting Hamas in its war against Israel and Fatah, but because given a choice between taking responsibility for someone else’s security and the preservation of their own regime, they know exactly what to do.
Presumably then, Cairo has little problem with the news that thousands of Egyptian and assorted foreign fighters have reportedly entered Gaza. The additional numbers only change the math for Israel, not the nature of the conflict. A more troubling scenario, for both Israel and Egypt, is with Palestinians and others heading into Egypt. Egypt’s state-security apparatus will do everything in its power—even “breaking legs,” as the Egyptian foreign minister warned—to prevent Islamist fighters from going south, especially to Cairo. The last thing the aging Mubarak wants, after Gama’a Islameya waged civil wars against the state and society throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, is to go another round against a hard-charging Islamist insurgency. But in the face of Arab public opinion, it is hard to imagine Mubarak sending everyone back if the Israelis are laying siege to Gaza. So, where will the militants go? Perhaps we are looking at the first stages of the Palestinianization of northern Sinai.
The Sinai has become a security nightmare over the last few years. While the Egyptians allow Palestinian groups to smuggle arms through it, other outfits have attacked Egyptian resorts in Sharm al-Sheikh and Taba, and Cairo’s only response to the violence on its own soil has been to round up hundreds of Bedouin they’ve accused of aiding terrorists. The Egyptians say they want to add another 750 troops to their contingent in the Sinai—a plan backed by Washington and resisted by many Israeli officials—otherwise, they say, they have little control over what happens in Sinai, just as the Lebanese government can’t rein in Hezbollah.
The Lebanonization of Egypt—where Iran helps build an Islamist organization that creates a virtual state within a state, which the central government cannot properly control, even as it aggravates a powerful Israeli neighbor—is a real concern. Just as it seeded Hezbollah in the south of Lebanon during the early 1980s to export the revolution and fight Israel, Iran has funded and trained Hamas fighters for the same purpose. This is not to say that Egypt’s strong centralized state is in danger of being overthrown by an Islamist group, as Hezbollah is trying to bring down the government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. Rather, it poses a threat to the Pax Americana, whose cornerstone is the 1979 peace accord.
The Israelis believe that the treaty is a vital strategic interest of theirs and would be unlikely to risk it by venturing anywhere into Egypt proper, even the northern Sinai, to try to take down Hamas, as they tried, and failed, to do with Hezbollah in the summer of 2006. The Egyptians also value the treaty, but over the last quarter-century Cairo has come to believe it can take the $2 billion it receives annually from the United States for granted, especially now that it has more pressing issues to deal with, like Iran.
The Israelis are only a little more open about their fears of Iran than the Sunni states are. Recall that it was Hosni Mubarak who warned back in 2006 that Shiites are a fifth column more loyal to Iran than the countries they live in. And now his front door has been pushed open by an Iranian-backed militant organization, whose point man for negotiations during the Gaza crisis has been Khaled Meshaal, who coordinates his activities with Tehran and Damascus, where he is based.
So, another way to understand the Gaza breach is as part of Syria and Iran’s war against the regional order imposed by Washington. To be sure, Egypt is scared of Iran and even stands with Washington in supporting the Lebanese government against Hezbollah and against Iranian and Syrian meddling, but having to fight Tehran and Damascus openly on Egyptian soil is something else entirely, especially as Egypt, like many Sunni states around the region, suspects that the Bush administration has gone soft on Iran.
There are two worries then. First, what kinds of deals are the Egyptians, and other Sunnis, seeking to cut with the Iranians to save their own hides since the Bush White House doesn’t plan on fighting Tehran anytime soon? If Egypt could get a promise from the Iranians not to come after them, would they offer the privilege of limited operations against Israel from the northern Sinai? Second, is scuttling the 1979 peace treaty part of Iran’s larger regional strategy to redraw the map of the Middle East to its own liking?
The White House never quite recovered from the winter 2006 Palestinian Authority elections that resulted in a victory for Hamas. That unwitting empowerment of a terrorist organization helped create the world’s first Muslim Brotherhood state, an Islamic emirate on the Eastern Mediterranean, which is making the decades-old Pax Americana seem vulnerable.