Sunday, August 5, 2012

Sinai Border Attack - Egypt And Israel's Next Steps

Egyptian and Israeli news outlets continue to provide updates on an attack by jihadists on Egyptian soldiers on the Egypt-Israel border.  Current reports indicate at lease 15 Egyptians were killed in the attack and 10 wounded.  At least one vehicle hijacked by the attackers penetrated the Israeli border.  Egypt's president Mohammed Morsi has called a meeting with the SCAF to discuss the attacks.  Today's attack comes almost exactly one year after terrorists from the Sinai attacked an IDF patrol, a civilian bus, and a civilian car just north of Eilat.  In response, Israel returned fire across the border, killing 3 Egyptian soldiers in the resulting crossfire.

Both Egypt and Israel have a strong interest in maintaining stability in the Sinai.  That is one of the reasons why during the protests in Tahrir Square, Israel allowed Egyptian troops into the region despite it being a violation of the 1979 Camp David Accords.  Israel realized, correctly, that keeping the peace in the Sinai was worth the risk of bringing Egyptian troops close to the border.  In the aftermath of this attack, both the IDF and the SCAF will need to coordinate closely to prevent escalations.  That Israel had advance knowledge of an impending attack indicates that today's tragedy may have been an operational rather than an intelligence failure.  In any case, the solution will require close coordination between both governments.

The attack will also be a major test for Egypt's President Morsi.  Morsi's rhetoric since assuming the presidency in June has consistently signaled a no-first strike policy towards Israel.  However, in the wake of a terrorist attack which was directed - if only secondarily - at Israel, he will be forced to take action in the Sinai.  Morsi will need to strike a careful balance between coordination with Israel and not appearing to compromise the FJP's decidedly anti-Israel sentiments.

For its part, Israel will have to find a way to ensure that such attacks are prevented in the future without jeopardizing its very sensitive but important relationship with Egypt.  While last year's attack was the first of its kind and intensity post-revolution, Israel can only work quietly under the table so many times before public pressure from the right will push the government to take a harder line.  Israel should frame its concern as support for Egyptian efforts to secure the Sinai region, while seeing that the institutional gaps in Egypt that allow such attacks are remedied.

Israel will also have to be careful that any response it gives to today's rocket attacks from Gaza are not conflated with a response to the attack from Egypt.  If the Arab street perceives an airstrike in Gaza as a response to jihadism more broadly, it could needlessly exacerbate ill will.  This animosity could constrain Egypt's ability to coordinate with Israel, something that would not be at all in Israel's interest.