The Simmering Sinai

The polls had closed a few hours earlier in Cairo, after two days of voting for a president who may or may not have any power. The Muslim Brotherhood was preparing to claim victory. Meanwhile, in the desert to the west, three gunmen crossed the border between Egypt's Sinai Peninsula and Israel, attacked an Israeli crew building a border fence, and killed a worker, an Arab Israeli named Saeed Fashafshe.

The human mind likes to make connections, so it's easy to draw a thick black line of cause-and-effect between these events: One could conclude that the revolution alone is at fault for the Egyptian regime losing control of the Sinai desert—or worse, that the ascendant Islamicists are encouraging the border violence. Those reflexive interpretations ran through Israeli media reports this week.

The reality is more complicated. Nonetheless, the fact that the border and Egyptian politics are heating up at the same time demands attention. For Egypt's wrestling political forces, the lesson should be that foreign policy problems don't take vacation because you are busy with a revolution. For Israel's government, the proper conclusion is that restraint is triply necessary when a revolution is in progress next door.

Long before the revolution, Egypt's central government treated the Sinai as the "periphery of the periphery," says Ben-Gurion University professor Yoram Meital, a leading Israeli expert on Egypt. The scattered Beduin of the Sinai feel little connection with other Egyptians, and the feeling is mutual. Besides that, the 1979 peace treaty with Israel sharply restricts the military forces that Egypt can deploy in the Sinai. Demilitarization is designed to prevent war between the two countries—but it also reduces the control that Egypt can assert over the barren peninsula. Even while Hosni Mubarak was still in power, Meital notes, armed groups began moving into the Sinai's "security vacuum." The Israeli army has Gaza too tightly surrounded for Palestinian militants to enter Israel from there—so some have tried to outflank the Israeli military by crossing through the Sinai. To all this, one may add the breakdown in security throughout Egypt since the fall of Mubarak. Personal safety was a central campaign issue before last weekend's elections.

So far, the election has yielded one conclusion: The internal struggle in Egypt has only begun. The constitutional court's dismissal of parliament and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces's sudden rewriting of the constitution show that the old regime is determined to impose a restoration: It wants the new Egyptian republic, like the old Egyptian republic, to have the façade of parliament and president while the army runs the country. (As historian M. Sukru Hanioglu has written, this form of government was invented by the Young Turks at the end of the Ottoman Empire and bequeathed to nearly all the states that arose on its ruins.) People who voted for the Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi don't neccesarily want Morsi as leader. What does unite them is they don't want a restoration.

Israel isn't the central issue in this fight. But Egyptian politicians on all sides know two important things: The Egyptian public dislikes Israel, and maintaining the peace is absolutely the responsible thing to do, economically and militarily. Hence the Brotherhood has dropped its traditional opposition to the peace treaty since the revolution began last year. Its new position is that it will honor existing international obligations.

But as Meital notes, the Brotherhood hasn't dropped the long-standing demand of the Egyptian opposition to "exercise Egyptian sovereignty in the Sinai." On the surface, that's exactly what Israel wants: Israeli military chief of staff Benny Gantz used precisely those words after the border incident on Monday. The difference is in the meaning. Gantz means that the Egyptians should do more to stop terror attacks. Egyptian politicians mean that the military restrictions of the peace treaty should be renegotiated so that Egypt can move larger forces into the Sinai.

In the meantime, some very dangerous rhetoric about Sinai has entered Israeli public discourse. On Monday, for instance, the Arab affairs commentator on Israel's most-watched TV news broadcast described Sinai as being "annexed to Gaza" and as being similar to "Fatahland," the part of southern Lebanon used by armed Palestinians groups as their base for attacks on Israel in the 1970s.

Over time, such talk could produce public demands for the Israeli military to enter Egyptian territory in response to border incidents. In the midst of Egypt's political turmoil, this would be an invitation for Egyptian politicians to rally support with strident calls for defense of the nation and abrogation of the peace agreement.

In theory, shared concerns about the Sinai should be the basis for Egyptian-Israeli negotiations that would bring enough Egyptian troops to the border area to reassert government control. In the real world, Egypt is busy with its internal troubles. Dangerous as slighting foreign policy problems may be, the crisis isn't likely to end quickly. Even if the current military leaders want to hold talks, Israel would be justified in wondering whether its negotiating partners will be in power next month.

If Israel doesn't want to put itself at the center of Egyptian politics—and shatter relations with the next regime even before it comes into being—the correct policy is intense self-restraint. Strengthening defenses inside Israeli territory along the border makes sense. The standard Israeli doctrine of always taking the battle to the enemy would be a drastic error if the enemy is inside Egyptian territory. Israeli officials must learn to skip the swagger and hold their tongues, on and off the record.  As long as Cairo roils, the best Israeli policy is not just to speak softly. It's to speak not at all.

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