We are able to consider the lessons of the weekend’s mob assault on the Israeli embassy in Cairo because the six Israeli security officers who were on the brink of being slaughtered were rescued at the last moment and spirited out of the country. If the Egyptian commandos hadn’t arrived on the scene at the last moment, the situation would have been too explosive for a sober-minded assessment of the rapidly deteriorating situation with our neighbor to the south.
Any assessment of the weekend’s events must begin by recounting a few key aspects of the assault. First, this was the second mob attack on the embassy in so many weeks. During the first assault, an Egyptian rioter scaled the 20-story building where the embassy is housed, tore down the Israeli flag, and threw it to the frenzied mob below which swiftly burned it. Rather than being arrested for the crime of assaulting a foreign embassy, the rioter was embraced as a hero by Egypt’s military regime. The governor of Giza awarded him an apartment and a job.
Second, for six hours after the assault on the embassy began on Friday evening, Israel’s leaders tried desperately to contact the leaders of the Egyptian military junta to request their intercession on behalf of the trapped security officers.
Field Marshal Muhammad Tantawi refused to speak with either Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu or Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
Third, Egyptians authorities refused to intervene to save the lives of the Israeli security officers until after the Americans intervened directly on their behalf.
That is, Israel’s entreaties, and Egypt’s international legal obligations were insufficient to move the Egyptian authorities to act to save the embassy personnel from the mob. Only the apparent threat of direct US action against Egypt convinced them to act.
The behavior of the Egyptian mob and military junta alike served as a wake-up call for two key constituencies.
Until last weekend, both the Israeli Left and the US foreign policy establishment believed the situation in Egypt was not significantly worse than it had been under deposed president Hosni Mubarak.
Most Israelis awoke to the fact that Israel’s border with Egypt is no longer a peaceful one three weeks ago. After the Egyptian-Palestinian terror cell infiltrated Israel from Sinai on August 18 and massacred eight Israelis on the highway to Eilat, most Israelis recognized that relations with Egypt had been ruptured.
But until the weekend, Israel’s Left insisted there was a distinction between the lawless Sinai and the more orderly situation in Cairo. They argued that all that was needed to calm the situation in Sinai was for the military junta to assert its authority in Sinai as it does in the rest of Egypt. Hence, the Left argued that it is in Israel’s interest to amend the peace treaty and allow the Egyptian military to remilitarize the Sinai.
Since the weekend, these claims have been notably absent from the discourse. After the Egyptian military allowed the mob to take over the embassy, residual leftist faith in the junta’s moderation and commitment to the peace with Israel is swiftly evaporating.
As for the Americans, unlike Israel, American foreign policy hands from across the conservative-liberal divide supported the mob in Tahrir Square that called for Mubarak’s overthrow. The Americans hailed Mubarak’s demise as a triumph of liberal democratic forces in the Arab world. But in the aftermath of the weekend’s assault on the embassy, voices from across the political spectrum in the US are calling for a reassessment of US relations with Egypt.
For his part, Obama’s willingness to intervene on behalf of the besieged security guards at the embassy was probably not divorced from his assessment of the political fallout likely to ensue from the slaughter of Israeli embassy guards by the Egyptian mob.
In such an event, the American public would immediately equate Obama’s support for the “democratic, revolutionary” mob against longstanding US ally Mubarak with his predecessor Jimmy Carter’s support for the “democratic, revolutionary” Iranian mob against the US-allied Shah of Iran in 1979.
The fact that Obama recognizes the political significance of the developments in Egypt signals that he too may be willing to consider adopting a different policy towards Egypt in the months to come.
All of this is important.
In the absence of a reassessment of the situation in Egypt by the Israeli Left and the American policy establishment alike, the chance of anyone adopting rational policies towards the strongest Arab state would remain small.
Any rational policy must be based on an accurate assessment of the dynamics of the post- Mubarak political situation. Specifically, is the junta part of the mob or is it simply unable or unwilling to manage it?
Apparently it is a bit of both.
Like its treatment of the rioter who tore the Israeli flag from the embassy building two weeks ago, the regime’s arrest in June of the dual Israeli- American citizen ` on trumped-up espionage charges is an example of the junta acting as part of the mob.
On the other hand, the regime’s decision to try Mubarak and his sons in contravention of Tantawi’s solemn pledge to Mubarak is an indication that Tantawi and his generals are led by the mob.
As for Grapel – and to a lesser degree Mubarak – the US’s ultimate success in forcing the junta to rescue the Israelis trapped at the embassy demonstrates that the US still has significant leverage against Egypt. When it is sufficiently adamant, Washington can force the junta change its behavior.
It is not clear how much this leverage is dependent on continued US financial and military assistance to Egypt. Obviously, an assessment of its significance should guide any US consideration of reducing or cutting off that aid.
As for Israel, the mob’s ability to determine the course of events in Egypt and the junta’s refusal to stand up to the mob on Israel’s behalf is a strong indication that the peace treaty is doomed.
After the junta stood back and allowed the mob to storm the embassy, it is impossible to believe the junta will defy the mob’s demand to abrogate the treaty.
The fact that the treaty is doomed doesn’t mean that Israel will immediately find itself at war with Egypt – although the prospect can no longer be ruled out. The US’s continued leverage against the regime – like NATO’s leverage against Turkey – may very well convince the Egyptians to maintain a ceasefire with Israel.
On the other hand, US leverage may end after November’s elections. The Muslim Brotherhood and its allies are expected to win a parliamentary majority and the presidency.
Given the explosiveness of the situation, it is imperative that the US not repeat its rush to action from January where without considering the consequences of its actions, Washington hurriedly sided with the Tahrir Square mob against Mubarak. The US shouldn’t support elections or oppose them. It shouldn’t cut off aid or increase it. It shouldn’t condemn the junta or embrace it.
The Americans should simply monitor the situation and prepare for all contingencies.
As for Israel, it must prepare for the possibility of war. It must increase the size of the IDF by adding a division to the Southern Command. It must train for desert warfare. It must expand the Navy.
Thankfully, all Israeli personnel were safely evacuated from Cairo. But this happy circumstance must not blind anyone to the dangers mounting in Egypt.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.