Could there be a clash between Israel and Egypt?

There is peace between Israel and Egypt since 1979. The two states also cooperate with each other against Islamic State (ISIS) in the Sinai Peninsula.

By
March 5, 2016 22:32
3 minute read.
Taba crossing

An Egyptian soldier stands near the Egyptian national flag and the Israeli flag at the Taba crossing between Egypt and Israel. (photo credit: REUTERS)

A few days ago a Russian state-owned aircraft manufacturer announced the sale of 50 MiG- 29 fighters to a North African country, most likely Egypt.

On mid-February a senior Israeli defense official said, regarding Israel’s need to assimilate the F-35 joint strike fighter, that although there is peace with Egypt the latter focuses on Israel. Therefore Israel “must be ready for every possible scenario and every radical strategic shift, because we have no other choice.”

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There is peace between Israel and Egypt since 1979. The two states also cooperate with each other against Islamic State (ISIS) in the Sinai Peninsula.

However there are some alarming signs.

On Febraury 13 Abdel Fattah Sisi, Egypt’s president, “emphasized that a solution to the Palestinian issue should be reached as soon as possible, and said the problems of the Palestinians were the problems of the entire Egyptian nation.”

The ongoing Palestinian attacks on Israelis might cause a clash between the Palestinian Authority and Israel. At a certain point Israel might have to regain full control of the West Bank. If the PA is at risk, Egypt, particularly given its desire to prove it plays a key role in the region, might try to deter Israel from toppling the PA.

Egypt’s government considers Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, an enemy. Yet another round of fighting between Israel and the Hamas might cause many casualties among the Palestinian population, which might create strong resentment in Egypt against Israel. Egypt might demand Israel restrain its actions. Still, there could be more substantial collateral damage in the Gaza Strip. In such a case pressure from the Arab world and inside Egypt as well might urge the latter to be more assertive toward Israel, which might ignite a severe crisis.

The demilitarization of Sinai is one of the most important components of the 1979 peace treaty. In recent years Israel allowed Egypt to deploy almost a division in areas in Sinai, which is supposed to be demilitarized, in order to fight guerrillas and terrorists there. If Egypt, which wishes to end the demilitarization, insists on keeping this amount of troops in the peninsula, let alone reinforcing them, against Israel’s will, it would cause a major crisis.

There is unrest and uncertainty in Egypt about the country’s future due to its deep economic problems.

Such an atmosphere might be turned against Israel.

In late September 2015 a poll in Egypt showed that its public considers Israel to be their biggest enemy, far more than any other state. The Egyptian government might use this environment to distract the population from their troubles at home. It might be also vice versa, i.e. the Egyptian public might drag its leadership to confront Israel. In both cases the purpose of the Egyptian government/ people might not be to actually fight Israel, but it might end in that.

The United States lost much of its influence in Egypt, which might have serious ramifications if the US tries to reconcile between Egypt and Israel in a time of crisis between them. Growing tension between the US and Egypt might reflect also on Egypt’s approach toward Israel because the latter is a close US ally. Either way the US would try to prevent or at least to stop any fighting between Israel and Egypt as soon as possible.

As stated, Egypt has been upgrading its military, in spite of its poor economic situation. Egypt’s military is already the strongest Arab military with more than 3,000 tanks, including 1,000 M1A1s, 500 combat aircraft including more than 200 F-16s and dozens of gunships like the AH-64. Israel has more than 3,000 tanks, about a 1,000 of them are advanced models of the Merkava, and more than 600 combat aircraft such as more than 100 F-15Is and F-16Is.

All in all there are several reasons for friction between Israel and Egypt. If some of them materialize in a certain period they might bring about a major crisis and even a clash and in the worst case a war between the two states.

The author is an analyst of Israel’s national security, a former IDF employee and the author of Israel’s Way of War (McFarland).


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