Security and Defense: Growing threats

Israel counts on military sales to ensure that US retains a certain level of influence over the interim and future governments in Cairo.

Muhammad Tantawi (photo credit: REUTERS)
Muhammad Tantawi
(photo credit: REUTERS)
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 bank.
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 government.
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 Israel.
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 not.
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.
The second 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 Organization.
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.

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