Stop coddling Cairo

It is late, but not too late, for Egypt to take responsibility and shut its border with Gaza.

Mubarak 248 88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Mubarak 248 88
(photo credit: AP [file])
From a political perspective, the successful elimination of Imad Mughniyeh, the arch-terrorist who embodied the nexus of Hizbullah, Hamas and Iran, relieves pressure on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who are failing to contend with Hamas's escalating attacks. Yet this achievement, as impressive as it is (if Israel were responsible for it), is no substitute for a changed and successful policy toward Gaza. This is true even though the significance of Mughniyeh's demise should not be minimized - whether because of the incredible capabilities that are now being attributed, rightly or wrongly, to Israel, or because the Islamist terror network has lost one of its most skilled and connected operatives. Hizbullah and Iran have lost precisely the killer who would have been assigned with "avenging" the attack that killed him. But Mughniyeh's end in no way addresses the growing threat from Gaza and what many see as an inexorable march to war there. Worse, if his elimination becomes a substitute for action on this other front, it might have brought war even closer. The government's task now is to prevent a ground war in Gaza by defeating Hamas by other means. A ground war, which under present circumstances would cost many Israeli and Palestinian lives without necessarily preventing Hamas's rearmament over the medium term, should be avoided, but not by accepting the status quo. It is Olmert and Barak's job to find an alternative, not to let themselves be inexorably dragged toward a ground war. The only alternative to a ground war is to step up the military pressure on Hamas, including through targeted killings of terrorists and of those who send them, while choking off the weapons flow from Egypt into Gaza. On Wednesday, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, "I think it is fair to say that we have not been satisfied with Egypt's efforts on the tunnels... Those tunnels have been there for a long time and it has been hard to stop smuggling... We are in conversations with the Egyptians and the Israelis about how that might be done better." The fact that Rice is speaking about this at all is progress, though this is not the first time she has said such things publicly. But it is equally clear that such half-hearted statements - which even excuse Egypt's failure by pointing out the difficulties - will continue to be shrugged off by Cairo. So long as Cairo senses that Israel and the US are more concerned with not pressing Egypt too hard than they are about the weapons flow into Gaza, nothing will change. While the blame and consequences for this US-Israeli stance will be shared, the main responsibility for changing the situation lies with Israel. This is so because the US cannot be expected to care more than Israel about Egypt acting as Hamas's facilitator. Israel does mouth protests from time to time. But when push comes to shove, Olmert is happy to travel to Egypt and praise President Hosni Mubarak for supporting peace and fighting terrorism. This sends the clear signal that there will be no serious diplomatic or financial consequences for Egyptian behavior. It is time for Israel to say that Egypt bears a sovereign responsibility to stop the weapons flow into Gaza, and that if it chooses not to do so, there is little practical difference between Egypt's passive (at best) support for Hamas and Syria's active support for Hizbullah. The death of Mughniyeh directed a spotlight on the Hamas-Hizbullah-Iran connection. The Hamas terrorists who left Gaza for training and have returned to Gaza did so across the border with Egypt. The entire Hamas effort to copy Hizbullah's armament and tactics - and that could well lead to copying Hizbullah's war - could not have taken place if Egypt had exercised its responsibilities toward peace and fighting terrorism. It is late, but not too late, to do something about all this. Even now, if Egypt shuts down the weapons flow, Hamas will be greatly weakened, and will become much more hesitant about starting a war from which it is less likely to recover. Nothing in the Israeli-Egyptian or American-Egyptian relationship is more important than pressing Egypt to block Hamas's march toward war. What is the point of coddling Cairo in the hopes that it will act as a "peace partner" when it is playing the pivotal facilitating role in strengthening Hamas?