Analysis: A hybrid of peace and terror

Ultimately, senior defense officials admit Israel can't deal with terror threat on its own, needs Egypt.

An Egyptian soldier on the Israeli border in Sinai 311 (R) (photo credit: Ronen Zvulun / Reuters)
An Egyptian soldier on the Israeli border in Sinai 311 (R)
(photo credit: Ronen Zvulun / Reuters)
There is something ironic about the situation in Sinai, a senior defense official said on Monday. Israel is officially in a perpetual state of war with Lebanon and Syria, but those are two of Israel’s quietest borders today.
“Egypt, which we have peace with, is turning into our biggest problem,” the official said.
This sums up the strategic predicament that Israel faces when confronting the growing terror threat brewing on the hot Sinai sand dunes. If rockets are fired from Lebanon or Syria, Israel would know what to do, just as it has done in the past – respond. If shots are fired at troops along the border with the Gaza Strip, it would also know what to do – fire back.
When it comes to Egypt, though, the black-and-white rules of engagement which apply to Israel’s other fronts are not applicable due to the nature of the two countries’ relationship. It is tense, but there is peace. There are attacks, but there is peace.
Since Hosni Mubarak’s fall, the number of intelligence alerts that the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) has recorded regarding possible attacks from Sinai has more than tripled and there is a standing general warning in place at the IDF’s Edom Division, responsible for the border.
But while Israel can retaliate and respond militarily to attacks from Gaza, its hands are – for the time being – tied in the face of the same threats from Egypt.
For this reason, Israel’s response to Monday morning’s attack will be twofold and will be split between the military and the government.
On the one hand, the military will continue to search for the perpetrators and the organization which orchestrated the attack. If they are found to be from the Gaza Strip – the likely culprits are Hamas, Islamic Jihad or the Popular Resistance Committees – Israel’s response will come in Gaza, as it did after the deadly attack along the Sinai border last August.
On the other hand, the government will use the attack to impress upon the new leadership in Cairo that it needs to begin taking the Sinai threat seriously and to move it up its list of priorities.
For Israel, it makes no difference who the president is and whether he is from the Muslim Brotherhood or not. Either way, officials explained on Monday, only Egypt can stop terror in Egypt.
The timing of the attack, though – on the same day as Mohamed Morsy declared victory in the runoff against Ahmed Shafik – cannot be ignored.
While it is unlikely that the Muslim Brotherhood was directly involved in the attack, the anti-Israel rhetoric by some of its leaders is not helpful in fostering good relations between the two countries.
What this means for Israel is that the situation will not change and if anything it will get worse. This will require Israel to rethink its current ban on military action and to rethink the value of the peace treaty against the continued attacks and decide what is more important.
The problem is that the occasional rocket attack from Sinai might turn into the least of Israel’s worries. What happens if in a year from now, Morsy decides to send the military into Sinai for exercises, something forbidden under the peace treaty? What will Israel do then? Rip up the peace treaty? Go to war? It is unclear when dealing with the new Egyptian hybrid of peace and terror.