Following a near crisis situation late Friday night when protesters laid siege to the Israeli embassy, the head of Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Planning Unit, Amir Eshel, traveled to Cairo on Monday to discuss the recent security developments in Egypt. Although Eshel's visit was reportedly focused primarily on the threats posed by lawlessness in the Sinai Peninsula, he also likely discussed an issue of major concern for Israel at the moment — the rising tone of anti-Israel sentiment in public demonstrations that has become commonplace in post-Mubarak Egypt. The only thing holding back a growing tidal wave of anti-Israel sentiment in Egypt is the military.
The Egyptian protests that began last January in an effort to force the removal of then-President Hosni Mubarak never really stopped, even after he was deposed in a military coup. There have been occasional lulls, but the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has been dealing with demonstrations on a consistent basis now for over seven months. It was only recently that one of the major themes has become opposition to the SCAF’s relationship with Israel. The change in tone was triggered by the deaths of six members of the Egyptian security forces following the Aug. 18 Eilat attacks
– and the way the SCAF handled the aftermath, most notably in refusing to recall Egypt’s ambassador to Israel. There is a disconnect between the way most Egyptian people feel regarding Israel and the strategic considerations that guide the military’s relations with its northeastern neighbor. To put it simply, most Egyptians dislike Israel and the peace treaty the two nations negotiated in 1978, while the military views their long-held alliance as a pillar of Cairo’s national security. Israel’s fear since last winter has been that new domestic considerations would leave the Egyptian military vulnerable to public pressure to amend this relationship. The SCAF could have prevented the demonstrations outside the Israeli embassy from escalating to the point where protesters were able to physically enter the building. There was an order from the top to allow the situation to become a near crisis before intervening to stop it. The SCAF waited for what must have felt like to Israel (and the United States) an interminably long time to order its commandos to bring the crisis to an end, whisking the remaining staff away and out of harm’s way. Israel expressed appreciation for this rescue, but it also likely understood the message conveyed by this incident: The only thing holding back a growing tidal wave of anti-Israel sentiment in Egypt is the military. It is unclear who organized the demonstrations that began as a standard protest in Tahrir Square before moving over to the embassy. The Israeli embassy had witnessed several such (largely peaceful) gatherings in the weeks following the Eilat attacks. Israel is not as concerned with who organized the demonstrations as much as how the SCAF may feel it has to appease the demonstrators to avoid being seen as being too quick to rush to Israel’s defense. Although the SCAF is still in firm control of the country and has no intention of breaking the peace treaty, in Israel’s mind, exploiting events such as last Friday’s for political gain is playing with fire. At some point, the military may not be able to save the day. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan — the leader of another country whose relationship with Israel has seen significant strains — was already scheduled to visit Cairo on Monday when the embassy crisis erupted. In the middle of what Ankara has dubbed the Turkish leader’s “Arab Spring tour,” Erdogan has planned visits to Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. (An idea to also visit the Gaza Strip was abandoned last week, possibly at the behest of the SCAF.) Turkey, like Egypt, has a long-running alliance with Israel. Unlike Egypt, Turkey had already begun to re-orient its foreign policy in recent years away from having such close ties with Israel. (The Mavi Marmara incident, which has recently come back into the headlines
, was a by-product of this shift that began in 2008.) Reasserting its influence in the Arab world
, especially in the countries that experienced political turmoil in the wake of the Arab Spring, is currently one of Ankara’s main foreign policy goals. The Turks are using their public spat with Israel to gain credibility in the region that shares anti-Israel sentiments. The sight of Erdogan speaking to a crowd of Egyptians in Arabic on Monday to chants of “Protector of Islam” points to the utility of such an approach. In the end, however, Turkey is not yet ready to play the role of regional powerhouse
, or to even effectively mediate the tensions between Egypt and Israel. Ankara is playing a perceptions game with Erdogan’s regional tour — a process that will take time to bear fruit. Israel, on the other hand, is facing reality. Given its strained relations with Turkey, doubt about its alliance with Egypt, a looming Palestinian U.N. vote, a weakened Syrian regime, a perpetually unpredictable Lebanon and an Iran that is about to gain from the looming vacuum in Iraq, Israel is reminded of the pitfalls of being located in the Middle East.