Israel and the dismissal of Morsi

Hicham Mourad , Monday 22 Jul 2013

While Israel argued to keep US aid flowing to Egypt, even under Islamist rule, there is no doubt it is glad to see the back of Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood regime

Israeli officials interceded with the United States to convince Washington not to cut or reduce military and economic aid given to Egypt in the wake of the ouster of president Morsi by the army. Tel Aviv fears that such a revision of assistance, mainly military, would undermine Egypt's commitment to the peace treaty with Israel. Military and economic aid ($1.3 billion and $250 million respectively) granted annually to Egypt by the United States was decided at the conclusion of the Camp David Accords in September 1978 and the consequent Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty in March 1979. Although not part of the agreement itself, it aimed to encourage Egypt to maintain its commitment to peace with Israel.

Israeli officials, starting with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, did not have to argue too much with their American counterparts, both in the administration and Congress, already mostly convinced — despite public statements calling for the revision of aid — of the need to maintain it in order to protect the interests of the United States, including the peace treaty, a pillar of Washington Middle East policy.

Israel had already called on the United States to continue its military and economic assistance to Egypt after the fall of Mubarak in February 2011 for the same reason. The peace treaty was anyhow respected by Morsi. He even intervened as a mediator, to the great satisfaction of Tel Aviv and Washington, between the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) and Israel, allowing an end to the offensive against Gaza in November 2012. His intervention was motivated by his desire to rescue Hamas, his ally in Palestine, from the bombing and destruction committed by the Israeli army, as well as to please Washington, for which the protection of the security of Israel is high on the priorities of its Middle East policy.

In this way, Israel's security was in general protected under the Muslim Brotherhood. How then to explain Israel's satisfaction at the removal of Morsi? The first reason lies in the connection between Morsi and the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, which does not recognise Israel and adopts armed struggle against the latter's occupation of the Palestinian territories. Tel Aviv believes, rightly or wrongly,that these two Islamist parties want in the end, for ideological religious reasons, the destruction of Israel. For Tel Aviv, if the regime of the Muslim Brotherhood did not impair the security of Israel it is because it was too absorbed in its internal political, economic and social problems as well as its efforts to dominate the main institutions of the state. Tel Aviv thought, however, that the Brotherhood regime could be harmful to Israel's security in the medium and long run, by providing substantial and multifaceted assistance to Hamas.

Its concerns were reinforced by the deterioration of security in the Sinai Peninsula, which borders Israel, due to the proliferation of jihadist groups in connection with Hamas and other Palestinian Salafist groups. Egypt has indeed stepped up security operations in Sinai to hunt terrorists. But it was mainly the result of the pressure of the Egyptian army, who was concerned about the rise of the jihadist threat in this highly important area for the security of Egypt.

President Morsi had to endorse this campaign because the situation in Sinai became intolerable, causing several deaths, injuries and kidnappings among military officers and Egyptian police. Relatives of the victims regularly, rightly or wrongly, blamed their misfortunes on what they deemed the laxity of the Brotherhood regime and its collusion with Hamas. The latter was often the target of a fierce campaign of criticism in the Egyptian media for its alleged responsibility for the deterioration of security and for attacks in Sinai.

The fact that the army took things in hand in Sinai was a relief for Israel. The Egyptian army had developed in the Mubarak era a working relationship with its Israeli counterpart on common security issues related to the infiltration and presence of jihadist elements in Sinai. The Israeli chief of staff stressed that security coordination with Egypt had improved under the Muslim Brotherhood because of the deterioration of the situation in Sinai.

Since the dismissal of Morsi, the army is conducting the most extensive campaign yet against jihadists and Hamas militants in the Sinai Peninsula, where it announced recently the killing of 32 and the arrest of 45 belonging to this movement. For the first time since the conclusion of the peace treaty, the Egyptian army has used, with the approval of Tel Aviv, F16 fighter jets and Apache attack helicopters in the demilitarised border zone. Some of these aircrafts even flew over the Gaza Strip, where they detected, according to an Egyptian military source, 150 members of the Ezzedine Al-Qassam Brigades — the armed wing of Hamas — while they were headed to Sinai via smuggling tunnels.

The satisfaction of Israel is also justified on the political level. Egypt plays a major role vis-à-vis the Palestinian issue, whether the inter-Palestinian reconciliation issue or the peace process, at a deadlock for years. Under Morsi, Egypt moved closer to Hamas, the archenemy of Israel, and marginalised the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas, the sole interlocutor of Tel Aviv. This situation was exactly the opposite of that existing under Mubarak, who had favoured the Palestinian Authority at the expense of Hamas.

Any Egyptian government not dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, or the Salafists (and this is the case with the new governmental team), is likely to establish a different balance. Hamas will almost inevitably suffer a negative effect from the anti-terrorism campaign underway in Sinai and backlash agains its probable interference in the internal affairs of Egypt, particularly as revealed by an Egyptian court in the release and escape of leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, including Mohamed Morsi, during the uprising against Mubarak in January 2011.

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