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AnalysisWhat the Egyptian putsch means for Israel

After Morsi: Opportunity, and the risk of flare-up in Gaza

Israeli officials may be impressed with the coup, but if Cairo’s interim government continues to hammer Hamas, the south could actually suffer

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

An Egyptian protester flashes V signs for a military aircraft forming a heart-shaped trail in the sky over Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, Friday, July 5. (photo credit: AP/Amr Nabil)
An Egyptian protester flashes V signs for a military aircraft forming a heart-shaped trail in the sky over Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, Friday, July 5. (photo credit: AP/Amr Nabil)

The June 30 Egyptian drama was difficult to predict precisely. Although many commentators, journalists and members of the intelligence community could have said on the eve of the demonstrations that Mohammed Morsi’s position was problematic, or even under threat, it’s doubtful that any of them would have put any money on the events turning into a full-fledged military coup (some would call it a popular revolution).

At the end of an eventful week that, in keeping with most post-revolutionary eras, saw dozens killed, many question marks remain as to the future path of Egypt, and its relationship with Israel. At first glance, the ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood doesn’t appear to augur any terrible long-run development for Israel. However, the immediate repercussions were already felt this week, when jihadist terror organizations based in the Sinai upped their efforts to target Egyptian targets on the one hand (on Tuesday night two Egyptian soldiers were killed in an ambush, and another was killed on Friday), and to attack Israeli targets on the other, as in the rockets fired at Eilat last weekend.

It’s unclear how the Egyptian military will conduct itself vis-à-vis Hamas. It’s no secret that the Egyptian military is hostile toward Palestinian organizations. And yet, as long as the Muslim Brotherhood was governing, actions against Hamas had an air of legitimacy, owing to the pact between the Brothers and their protégés among the ranks of the Palestinians’ leadership in Gaza.

But now that the friends of Hamas’s top brass no longer reside in the Heliopolis Palace, excessively aggressive Egyptian military action against Gaza may stir profound public criticism. Such a reaction, in turn, could prompt Egypt’s security forces to seek to bolster their “pro-Palestinian” bona fides with the Egyptian public. For now it seems that the Egyptian military, led by Secretary of Defense Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, refuses to consider such scenarios. Over the last two weeks he’s been waging an all-out war against the tunnels linking Gaza to the Sinai Peninsula. The unprecedented operation has almost completely shut down the estimated 250-300 tunnels in the Rafah area.

Nowadays, of course, the Egyptian army doesn’t consider Gaza its top priority. Sinai, on the other hand, is an entirely different story: The tunnels between the Gaza Strip and the peninsula are perceived in Cairo as a palpable threat to Egyptian national security, in light of the fact that arms — and terrorists — are being smuggled not only from Sinai into Gaza, but also in the opposite direction.

Egyptian Defense Minister Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi (photo credit: AP/Jim Watson, Pool)
Egyptian Defense Minister Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi (photo credit: AP/Jim Watson, Pool)

The tunnel debate poses another question: How will Hamas act? Does it intend to maintain its ceasefire with Israel? Or, lacking allies in Cairo, will it perhaps now be less committed to keeping the quiet between Israel and the strip?

The balance of power within Hamas is on the brink of change. The Khaled Mashaal-Ismail Haniyeh axis — considered close to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and to Qatar — has taken a blow following the revolution. Perhaps the voice of those Hamas leaders who support the organization’s ties with Iran and Syria (the heads of Hamas’s military wing, for instance) will be heard again now that the Muslim Brothers have fallen.

Officials in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv say that Hamas has no interest in causing an escalation, even following Morsi’s ouster. But the closure of the tunnels could precipitate such severe financial distress in Gaza that Hamas would feel impelled to take actions that will result in the reopening of one of the most important economic arteries to the territory.

There’s consensus in Israel about one factor: the role of Sissi, the defense secretary. The prevalent belief is that he will seek to safeguard the peace treaty with Israel, including the security coordination between the two countries. Even in the 10 days directly following Morsi’s ouster, daily security consultations between Israel and Egypt were maintained. Sissi, who was appointed by Morsi himself a mere 11 months ago, has been able to demonstrate political maneuverability reminiscent of a Bismark or a Machiavelli.

A Palestinian man works inside a smuggling tunnel that connects the Gaza Strip and Egypt in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip on November 24, 2012. (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash 90)
A Palestinian man works inside a smuggling tunnel that connects the Gaza Strip and Egypt in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip on November 24, 2012. (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

The man was well-known within Israeli circles, and yet there was much appreciation here this week for his sober audacity. “He conducted himself in an incredibly thoughtful manner,” one government official told The Times of Israel.

“Sissi is undoubtedly smarter than his predecessor [Mohamed Hussein] Tantawi. Egyptian public opinion was ready, but he has been able to harness it relatively smoothly,” Yitzhak Levanon, the former Israeli ambassador to Egypt, said. “In addition, Sissi has been able to isolate the Muslim Brotherhood. He accomplished something that no one expected: He created a broad coalition to stand against the Brotherhood, including the Copts, the youth, Sheikh [Ahmed el-Tayeb of] al-Azhar and more. He even got the Salafis to sign on to the ouster.”

Obviously, praise from Israel is of little use to Sissi within Egypt. But it may prove beneficial soon, when the US Congress is forced to decide whether to cut off aid to his army.

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