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The Katzwer’s Out of the Bag: An opportunity for better Egypt-Israel relations

Published: September 16, 2011
Section: Opinions, Top Stories

Last week on Sept. 9, thousands of Egyptian protesters tore down the security wall protecting the Israeli embassy in Cairo. Surging into the building, the rioters broke windows, set fires, spray-painted anti-Israel phrases and looted offices.

Israel was forced to evacuate their ambassador, Yitzhak Levanon, his family, and more than 80 embassy employees and their families.

While all of this may seem bleak, it really isn’t. Rather than being a catastrophe, this violence can be an opportunity to strengthen the Israeli-Egyptian bond.

Things are, as usual, complicated and tense in the Middle East. The recently dwindling Arab Spring worried many Israel supporters because, while many dictatorships in the region are not friendly toward Israel, they are not openly aggressive either, preferring to maintain the status quo. The fear has been that populist governments will not be content to leave Israel alone.

This fear was certainly confirmed in Egypt last week.

Since Hosni Mubarak was ousted Feb. 11, hostilities have been growing between Egyptians and Israelis, evidenced by the attempted disruptions of the Egypt-Israel natural gas pipeline. It is important to remember that all of these were the actions of the people, not the government—this is not terribly comforting, however, since the people are currently trying to seize control of their country.

This is an opportunity, however, for Egypt’s current government to show that they will continue to act in the best interests of their country. And it is in Egypt’s best interest not to dissolve their partnership with Israel.

This partnership began in 1979 with the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, signed by President Anwar El Sadat of Egypt and Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel. Thirty-two years of peace have followed. It is a cold peace, but a peace nonetheless.

It is clear from last week’s clash that neither the Egyptian government nor the Israeli government wants to abandon this peace. This did, however, seem questionable at first—after the riot began, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak tried unsuccessfully for nearly two hours to reach Egypt’s Supreme Military Council head, Mohamed Hussein Tantawi. It wasn’t until U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta intervened that action was taken.

But action was taken and that is the important part. Egyptian commandos rescued six embassy security guards trapped in the building. By the end of the hours-long ordeal, there were only three deaths, all of them rioters at the hands of Egyptian commandos.

This event could have been a bloodbath, sparking further bloodshed and death. But, by working in concert, both governments managed to quell the situation.

Israeli Home Front Defense Minister Matan Vilnai told Israel Army Radio, “From my point of view, the Egyptian commandos solved the situation and did this very well.” Israel is praising Egypt for taking care of the situation and Egypt is appreciative that Israel did not take matters into their own hands, starting a war.

Bouncing right back, Israel is already making plans for Ambassador Levanon to return to Egypt; Israel refuses to let this event sever diplomatic ties with Egypt. Similarly, Egyptian officials have stated that their ambassador to Israel will not be recalled. Egypt has boosted the security surrounding the Israeli embassy to prevent this from happening again and Israel has boosted the security surrounding the Egyptian embassy in Tel Aviv to prevent retaliatory attacks.

Despite the signs of a continued peace, Netanyahu is worried. He called the Israeli embassy in Cairo “the axis of our peace.” He continued, “It is an axis to which there are objectors, who are appealing not against policy, but against Israel.”

Honestly though, there will always be objectors to Israel—religion has been a hot-button issue for thousands of years.

Egypt and Israel need to take this as the opportunity it is and show the rest of the world, especially the other Middle Eastern countries, that they will not allow themselves to be ruled by bigotry but by intelligence. They must rule for their mutual and beneficial interests.

Israel must work to keep Egypt as a cool ally—the only type of ally Egypt will likely be, at least at the present time—especially in light of recent problems.

The fact that Israel even has an embassy in Egypt is a good sign. The only other Middle Eastern countries that house Israeli embassies are Jordan and Turkey.

Jordan, which officially ceased hostilities with Israel in the 1994 Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty, is currently not too happy with Israel, especially since Israel asked the United States to veto Jordan’s nuclear plans. Turkey, the first Muslim country to recognize Israel and a long-time trading partner, is still on the rocks with Israel over the May 2010 flotilla incident, in which nine protesters were killed.

It currently seems that Israel’s alliance with Egypt could go the same way, considering the Aug. 18 border shooting in which five Egyptians were killed. (This shooting was in response to militants fleeing across the border into Egypt after firing upon Israeli vehicles and killing eight people, six of whom were civilians.) The Egyptian government worked to quell its people after this.

Both governments need to use this instance to show the world that they will not be ruled by intolerance. They must work to remain allies and to stop the violence. They must not let 32 years of peace become a curious footnote in a future history book.