When the Yom Kippur War broke out in 1973, Muhammad Tantawi was a young
commander of Battalion 16 in the Egyptian Army’s 16th Infantry
Division. Armed with Soviet-made Sagger anti-tank missiles, Tantawi’s
battalion was ordered to hold a line along the Suez Canal and prevent Israeli
tanks from crossing it.
On October 16, midway through the war, his
battalion faced off against the IDF’s 14th Armored Brigade in what would later
become known as the Battle of the Chinese Farm, named for an old agricultural
station located just north of the Great Bitter Lake on the Suez Canal’s eastern
Tantawi held his position for almost 48 hours, earning a medal of
valor following the war. He fended off Israeli tanks and a battalion of
paratroopers who tried to clear the area so Israel could lay down bridges to
cross the canal.
The night of the 16th was the bloodiest of all, and the
paratroopers suffered heavy losses. In an attempt to rescue the force, the IDF
sent another armored battalion into the farms, led by a young lieutenant-colonel
named Ehud Barak.
Today, 38 years later, Tantawi and Barak – once enemies
– are leaders in their respective countries. Barak went on to become
chief of the IDF General Staff, prime minister and now defense minister. Tantawi
was appointed commander-in-chief of the Egyptian military in the early 1990s,
and earlier this year he became the official interim leader of his country with
the downfall of Hosni Mubarak.
In recent weeks, Barak and Tantawi have
spoken several times by phone, and a number of Israeli delegations – led by the
head of the Defense Ministry’s Diplomatic- Security Bureau, Amos Gilad – have
traveled discreetly to Cairo for talks with Tantawi’s transitional
Considering the potential alternatives, Tantawi is described
as a good partner for Israel, at least for the time being. While he is not
overly warm toward the Jewish state – he fought against it in two wars that
Egypt lost – he is part of the military’s old guard and understands that peace
with Israel is what has opened the doors to America’s most advanced military
equipment, from F-16 fighter jets to Harpoon missiles and Apache attack
helicopters to M1A1 Abrams Tanks.
That is why, as tense as ties may have
become in recent weeks, Tantawi will not be the one to rip up the peace treaty
with Israel. The military needs the US and, as a result, needs
The real concern in Jerusalem is what happens the day after
elections in Egypt, and whether a new president or parliament will share the
same sentiment. The growing popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the
growing anti-Israel sentiment on the streets and among presidential candidates,
demonstrate just how volatile the situation really is.
For that reason,
Israel is looking to remove itself from the Egyptian election agenda. One of the
ways under consideration to do this is establishing a strategic dialogue with
Egypt, in the framework of which Israel will initiate a comprehensive review of
the peace treaty in light of recent changes, particularly the military
developments in the Sinai.
While Israel has allowed 1,500 soldiers into
the peninsula, for the most part these have been tactical decisions, something
like crisis management. The thinking is that a comprehensive review, followed by
overarching changes, could settle all of the open issues between the countries
before the Egyptians go to the polls.
For something like this to happen,
Israel would need to depend on strong American involvement. That is why Israel
has remained quiet as American military sales to Egypt continue, like the
announcement in July that the Pentagon had approved the sale of 125 additional
Abrams tanks – the first large arms deal with Cairo since Mubarak was ousted
from power in February – for an estimated $1.3 billion.
The sale itself
raises serious questions for Israel. Egypt already has 1,000 Abrams tanks. With
all of the economic, social, political and security challenges the interim
regime faces, why does it need an additional 125 tanks? And why would the Obama
administration approve the sale at a time of uncertainty regarding the future of
Egypt and peace with Israel?
The answer to the first question is that while
there has been a revolution, the Egyptian military is continuing with its set
procurement plans as if nothing has changed. The more serious question, a senior
defense official said this week, is against whom the Egyptians are continuing to
arm themselves, when their borders are with Sudan and Libya and Israel. The
first two don’t really have a military; the third is a country with which Egypt
has a peace treaty.
The answer to the second question is that by selling
arms and military platforms to Egypt, the US ensures that it retains a certain
level of pressure and authority over the interim and future governments in
Cairo. The thinking in the defense establishment is that in theory, this is an important factor, even at the risk of the Egyptians getting
their hands on more advanced weaponry. The problem is that in practice, the US
involvement in Egypt has yet to be truly felt. One clear example is the
continued imprisonment of Ilan Grapel, the American-Israeli who has been held in
Egypt since June on allegations that he was spying for the Mossad. If the US
really has leverage, why is Grapel still in jail?
This sensitive situation is
what brought Israel to restrain itself when responding to the attacks from the
Sinai in mid-August even though the attackers came from Egypt and some of them
were even Egyptians.
Israel today understands that the Gaza- Egypt axis
is different than it was during the days of Mubarak and that the current regime
and likely any future one will not be as understanding when Israel finally
decides, if it ever does, to launch another Cast Lead.
One country that
continues to gain from the world’s involvement in the so-called Arab Spring, and
particularly the ongoing fighting in Libya, is Iran, which for the most part
appears to have fallen off the world’s agenda.
The last major piece of
news that came out of Iran regarding its nuclear program was the assassination
of nuclear scientist Darioush Rezaie in late July, which has been attributed to
the Mossad. Otherwise, things appear to be quiet, when in reality they are
IDF assessments are that Iran is purposely keeping a low profile
regarding its nuclear program, but is at the same time using the world’s focus
on the revolutions throughout the Arab world to speed up its nuclear work, and
particularly the enrichment of uranium.
In the past two weeks alone, Iran
has made two significant announcements.
The first is that it is moving
its centrifuges to a site called Fordo, near Qom, which is located deep inside a
mountain – seemingly to protect it from air strikes. The site, which Western
intelligence agencies believe was supposed to store centrifuges for
militarygrade enrichment, was hidden from United Nations inspectors and was
exposed to the world by President Barack Obama in 2009.
announcement, made this week, was that Iran was stopping all negotiations over a
potential nuclear fuel swap and that the Islamic Republic would continue to
enrich its uranium independently.
Both announcements were made by
Dr. Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani, head of the Iranian Atomic Energy
In November, Abbasi-Davani was on his way to work when a
motorbike pulled up alongside him, and the rider attached a magnetic bomb to his
car. Abbasi-Davani managed to escape the car and suffered light wounds. In
another bombing that same morning, Majid Shahriari, another scientist with the
Atomic Energy Organization, was killed.
Israel’s assessment of Iran’s
nuclear program has not changed all that much despite the clear escalation in
activity. Iran, Israeli intelligence believes, is continuing to stockpile
enriched uranium and perfect its technology, and will then wait for the right
time to go to the breakout stage and build the bomb.
When this happens is
up to Iran, but for the time being, the threat is only growing.