Western leaders, preoccupied with Libya, seem blithely unconcerned with what is happening in neighboring Egypt, content to accept Egyptian officials’ repeated pledges that of course the treaty with Israel will be preserved. But despite all those comforting promises, there are grounds for serious concern that the new regime in Cairo may end up sparking the first Egyptian-Israeli war in four decades.
In today’s Jerusalem Post, veteran Middle East analyst Barry Rubin lays out his reasons for this fear. I have a different reason: the implications of what’s been happening with Egypt’s natural gas pipeline to Israel.
Last week, the pipeline was shut down by the third terror attack in three months. The first took place amid the chaos of revolution, six days before Hosni Mubarak’s February 11 resignation; it closed the pipeline for almost six weeks. The second occurred on March 27, under the new government, and did no damage only because the bombs failed to detonate. The third is expected to shut the pipeline for another four to six weeks.
Egyptian officials disclaimed all responsibility, and contractually, they’re correct. The contract defines terror attacks as force majeure for which Egypt isn’t liable. Yet protecting the pipeline is hardly mission impossible; the proof is that Mubarak’s government did it. In the first three years after the gas began flowing in 2008, not a single terror attack disrupted the supply.
The difference is that Mubarak deemed protecting the pipeline a priority and devoted the necessary resources to doing so. The new government apparently doesn’t care. Hence even after the two previous terror attacks, it saw no need to beef up the pipeline’s lax security.
Clearly, the pipeline isn’t a casus belli. The interrupted gas supply is an expensive nuisance (since Israel must replace it with pricier substitutes), not an existential threat.
But a government so lackadaisical about protecting the pipeline might well prove equally lackadaisical about protecting its 250-kilometer-long border with Israel. And that would be an existential threat.
Terrorists have long sought to attack Israel from Sinai, but until now, with limited success: Mubarak kept the peace. But should terrorist organizations conclude that the new government is indifferent to border security, attacks will proliferate. And enough successful attacks could ultimately force Israel into a military response.
Precisely because most Egyptians loathe the peace with Israel—a recent poll found that 54% want to abrogate the treaty, while only 36% want to preserve it—the new government will be tempted to treat “protecting Israel” as a low priority. That means Israel’s planned fence along the once-peaceful border is suddenly high-priority.
But it also means that if Western leaders want to prevent a war, they should make it clear now that preserving the peace in reality, rather than merely on paper, is a prerequisite for Western support.