Haaretz (Editorial)
September 11, 2011 - 12:00am

Shortly after thousands of incensed demonstrators forced their way into the Israeli Embassy in Cairo over the weekend, both Egypt and Israel issued statements reaffirming their commitments to the 1979 peace treaty, the first to be signed between an Arab country and Israel.

But the country that once led the way in taking steps toward normalizing relations with the Jewish state now seems to be backing away, particularly after the February 11 ouster of Hosni Mubarak. Despite the potential for cooperation and the geographical proximity, cultural ties, tourism, commerce, manufacturing, and other fields of activity never really flourished between the two countries.

Yet even a tepid, stable peace with Egypt has been of utmost strategic importance to Israel. The quiet along our mutual border has allowed the IDF to redirect resources to other potentially inflammatory locations – south Lebanon, the Gaza Strip – while reducing the strain on reservists. Since the Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007, the IDF and Egypt have quietly coordinated efforts against Iranian-supplied arms smuggling. But the geopolitical map is changing.

As Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu pointed out Saturday night in a televised address, Israel “cannot ignore the heavy damage done to the fabric of peace.”

Symptoms of the damage include at least four debilitating attacks on the pipeline that supplies natural gas from Egypt to Israel since February; the arrest of Ilan Grapel, a American Israeli accused of “spying on Egypt with the aim of damaging its economic and political interests”; and the rise in anti-Israel, anti- Western sentiment on the Egyptian street as a backlash against the deposed Mubarak’s active support for the alliance with Israel – and with America.

The latest round of tension between Cairo and Jerusalem was ostensibly sparked by the accidental killing of at least three, perhaps five, Egyptian soldiers by IDF troops on August 18 while in hot pursuit of terrorists who had carried out an attack on a road leading to Eilat that left eight Israelis dead. But the Egyptian street was not sympathetic.

Two days after the incident, a man – who was quickly transformed into a national hero – scaled the Israeli Embassy building in Cairo and tore down the Israeli flag, which was duly burned by crowds who had gathered outside the building.

To help protect the embassy, Egyptian officials built a wall around it. However, it turned out late Friday night that the wall was sorrowfully inadequate in stopping the crowds from overtaking the embassy.

Some rioters actually made the outlandish claim that the wall provoked them to violence because it reminded them of the security barrier, which Israel was forced to erect in the West Bank during the second intifada to prevent infiltration of suicide bombers. Undoubtedly, Israel will also be blamed for the decision by the ruling Supreme Military Council’s to reinstate a reviled “emergency law” allowing indefinite detentions without trial for those who were arrested for attacking the embassy.

The siege of the embassy hardly bodes well for the future of Israeli-Egyptian relations as the Egyptian people prepare for their first truly free and democratic parliamentary and presidential elections – presently being planned for October or November. As in other Arab countries ruled for decades by autocratic regimes, voices calling for democratic reform and groups championing civil society are weak.

Under Mubarak, freedom-minded dissent was effectively snuffed out, perhaps even more aggressively than the challenges from Islamists. And the ruling Supreme Military Council has failed to provide direction and vision in the form of much needed democratic and economic reforms.

Understandably, there is widespread discontent among Egyptians who have come to the realization that the enormous energies channeled through Tahrir Square have so far failed to yield tangible improvements. But instead of venting their frustrations on Israel and endangering the fragile peace that helps bring stability to the region, Egyptians should instead focus on the myriad challenges that lie ahead for them as they make the transition to the post- Mubarak era.


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