A New Special Relationship

Adam Shatz · Egypt and Israel

On Sunday night, Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak called a cabinet meeting to argue against going to war in Gaza. The meeting lasted four hours, as these unlikely doves made the case for 'restraint'. They were, in a sense, arguing against themselves. After the attack in Eilat last Thursday, in which eight Israelis, five of them civilians, were killed, Netanyahu and Barak had immediately blamed the Popular Resistance Committee in Gaza, an armed movement of militants from different factions. If they had any evidence of PRC involvement, they didn't share it: the best an IDF spokeswoman interviewed on the Real News could manage was that the attackers used Kalashnikovs. The PRC denied responsibility; Hamas was even more sheepish: the last thing it needed was another Operation Cast Lead.

A more likely story was that the attacks were carried out by Islamic militants in the Sinai, where relations between Bedouins and the Egyptian government have deteriorated, and where the pipeline that carries natural gas to Israel and Jordan has been blown up five times since February (as it happens, one of the charges against Mubarak is that he sold gas to Israel at below market prices). Earlier this month, more than a thousand Egyptian troops launched a 'pacification' campaign in the Sinai after Islamist insurgents attacked a police station, killing five people.

But Israel insisted that Gazan militants were to blame for Eilat, and carried out air strikes in Gaza that killed at least 14 people, including two children. The usual round of rocket attacks by armed groups in Gaza (though not by Hamas) followed, and the usual calls inside Israel for more blood. War looked imminent. As some left-wing Israelis noted, it looked like just what Netanyahu needed to distract attention from – and perhaps even crush – the tent protests against his economic policies. Who would dare to demonstrate against the government – or raise inconvenient questions about the recent announcement to build 1600 new homes in occupied East Jerusalem – if the nation went to war?

Yet here were Netanyahu and Barak, pleading with their cabinet for 'restraint' until the early hours of Monday morning. They were joined by defence officials who pointed out that Hamas hadn't joined in the rocket attacks but had imposed a ceasefire on other militant groups. According to Haaretz, Netanyahu and Barak argued that Israel was too isolated internationally to go to war, and that its rocket interception system wasn't fully prepared. But the decisive argument was that the price of war in Gaza could be the peace treaty with Egypt. Relations had already been jeopardised by Israel's killing of at least three Egyptian security officers (five, according to Egypt) during its cross-border raid in search of the attackers in Eilat. The Egyptians were furious, and grew even more so when Israel chastised them for losing control of the Sinai.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the transitional junta that rules Egypt, has stated its commitment to the treaty, but it has also made clear that it will not interpret it as deferentially as Mubarak and his intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, did. The SCAF, which has officially agreed to hand over power to a civilian government after elections later this year, also has to take into consideration something that Mubarak and Suleiman pointedly ignored: public opinion. News of Israel's raid in the Sinai was explosive. Thousands surrounded the Israeli embassy in Cairo, many of them denouncing the peace treaty and calling for the ambassador's expulsion. A new folk hero was born: 23-year-old Ahmed Shahat, a.k.a. the Egyptian Spiderman or Flagman, who scaled the 13 floors of the embassy building and took down the Israeli flag.

If all this had happened a year ago, Mubarak would have done his best to suppress the news of the killing of Egyptian security personnel, and Shahat would almost surely have wound up in jail. Instead, Mubarak is in prison, facing trial, and the SCAF has to respond to the demands of Shahat and his admirers. Threatening to withdraw Egypt's ambassador in Tel Aviv, the SCAF insisted on an official apology from Israel; it received two, the second from Shimon Peres. An apology is not a revolution in Egyptian-Israeli relations, but it is a sign of a new respect, and an indication that the balance of power in this special relationship is shifting, as it has in Israel's relations with Erdogan's Turkey. The SCAF has shown – or, perhaps, discovered – that it has growing leverage in its relations with Israel, and that peace does not necessarily mean fealty. Field Marshal Muhammad Hussein Tantawi and his colleagues are not looking for confrontation – quite the contrary – but they clearly expect to be treated with dignity, not as clients but as partners. And they understand that Egyptians will accept nothing less.