Israel's dilemma

This article was first published on the Stratfor website. 

The events
in Egypt
have sent shock waves through Israel. The 1978 Camp David
Accords between Egypt and Israel have been the bedrock of Israeli
national security. In three of the four wars Israel fought before the
accords, a catastrophic outcome for Israel was conceivable. In 1948,
1967 and 1973, credible scenarios existed in which the Israelis were
defeated and the state of Israel ceased to exist. In 1973, it appeared
for several days that one of those scenarios was unfolding.

The survival of Israel was no longer at stake after 1978. In the 1982
invasion of Lebanon, the various Palestinian intifadas and the wars
with Hezbollah
in 2006
and Hamas
in Gaza in 2008
, Israeli interests were involved, but not survival.
There is a huge difference between the two. Israel had achieved a
geopolitical ideal after 1978 in which it had divided and effectively
made peace with two of the four Arab states that bordered it, and
neutralized one of those states. The treaty with Egypt removed the
threat to the Negev and the southern coastal approaches to Tel Aviv.

The agreement with Jordan in 1994, which formalized a long-standing
relationship, secured the longest and most vulnerable border along the
Jordan River. The situation in Lebanon was such that whatever threat
emerged from there was limited. Only Syria remained hostile but, by
itself, it could not threaten Israel. Damascus was far more focused on
Lebanon anyway. As for the Palestinians, they posed a problem for
Israel, but without the foreign military forces along the frontiers, the Palestinians
could trouble but not destroy Israel
. Israel’s existence was not at
stake, nor was it an issue for 33 years.

The Historic Egyptian Threat to Israel

The center of gravity of Israel’s strategic challenge was always
Egypt. The largest Arab country, with about 80 million people, Egypt
could field the most substantial army. More to the point, Egypt could
absorb casualties at a far higher rate than Israel. The danger that the
Egyptian army posed was that it could close with the Israelis and engage
in extended, high-intensity combat that would break the back of Israel
Defense Forces by imposing a rate of attrition that Israel could not
sustain. If Israel were to be simultaneously engaged with Syria,
dividing its forces and its logistical capabilities, it could run out of
troops long before Egypt, even if Egypt were absorbing far more

The solution for the Israelis was to initiate
combat at a time and place of their own choosing
, preferably with
surprise, as they did in 1956 and 1967. Failing that, as they did in
1973, the Israelis would be forced into a holding action they could not
sustain and forced onto an offensive in which the risks of failure — and
the possibility — would be substantial.

It was to the great benefit of Israel that Egyptian forces were
generally poorly commanded and trained and that Egyptian war-fighting
doctrine, derived from Britain and the Soviet Union, was not suited to
the battle problem Israel posed. In 1967, Israel won its most complete
victory over Egypt, as well as Jordan and Syria. It appeared to the
Israelis that the Arabs in general and Egyptians in particular were
culturally incapable of mastering modern warfare.

Thus it was an extraordinary shock when, just six years after their
1967 defeat, the Egyptians mounted a two-army assault across the Suez,
coordinated with a simultaneous Syrian attack on the Golan Heights. Even
more stunning than the assault was the operational security the
Egyptians maintained and the degree of surprise they achieved. One of
Israel’s fundamental assumptions was that Israeli intelligence would
provide ample warning of an attack. And one of the fundamental
assumptions of Israeli intelligence was that Egypt could not mount an
attack while Israel maintained air superiority. Both
assumptions were wrong
. But the most important error was the
assumption that Egypt could not, by itself, coordinate a massive and
complex military operation. In the end, the Israelis defeated the
Egyptians, but at the cost of the confidence they achieved in 1967 and a
recognition that comfortable assumptions were impermissible in warfare
in general and regarding Egypt in particular.

The Egyptians had also learned lessons. The most important was that
the existence of the state of Israel did not represent a challenge to
Egypt’s national interest. Israel existed across a fairly wide and
inhospitable buffer zone — the Sinai Peninsula. The logistical problems
involved in deploying a massive force to the east had resulted in three
major defeats, while the single partial victory took place on much
shorter lines of supply. Holding or taking the Sinai was difficult and
possible only with a massive infusion of weapons and supplies from the
outside, from the Soviet Union. This meant that Egypt was a hostage to
Soviet interests. Egypt had a greater interest in breaking its
dependency on the Soviets than in defeating Israel. It could do the
former more readily than the latter.

The Egyptian recognition that its interests in Israel were minimal
and the Israeli recognition that eliminating the potential threat from
Egypt guaranteed its national security have been the foundation of the
regional balance since 1978. All other considerations — Syria,
Hezbollah, Hamas and the rest — were trivial in comparison. Geography —
the Sinai — made this strategic distancing possible. So did American aid
to Egypt. The substitution of American weapons for Soviet ones in the
years after the treaty achieved two things. First, they ended Egypt’s
dependency on the Soviets. Second, they further guaranteed Israel’s
security by creating an Egyptian army dependent on a steady flow of
spare parts and contractors from the United States. Cut the flow and the
Egyptian army would be crippled.

The governments of Anwar Sadat and then Hosni Mubarak were content
with this arrangement. The generation that came to power with Gamal
Nasser had fought four wars with Israel and had little stomach for any
more. They had proved themselves in October 1973 on the Suez and had no
appetite to fight again or to send their sons to war. It
is not that they created an oasis of prosperity in Egypt
. But they
no longer had to go to war every few years, and they were able, as
military officers, to live good lives. What is now regarded as
corruption was then regarded as just rewards for bleeding in four wars
against the Israelis.

Mubarak and the Military

But now is 33 years later, and the world has changed. The generation
that fought is very old. Today’s Egyptian military trains with the
Americans, and its officers pass through the American command and staff
and war colleges. This generation has close ties to the United States,
but not nearly as close ties to the British-trained generation that
fought the Israelis or to Egypt’s former patrons, the Russians. Mubarak
has locked the younger generation, in their fifties and sixties, out of
senior command positions and away from the wealth his generation has
accumulated. They want him out.

For this younger generation, the idea of Gamal
Mubarak being allowed to take over the presidency
was the last
straw. They wanted the elder Mubarak to leave not only because he had
ambitions for his son but also because he didn’t want to leave after
more than a quarter century of pressure. Mubarak wanted guarantees that,
if he left, his possessions, in addition to his honor, would remain
intact. If Gamal could not be president, then no one’s promise had
value. So Mubarak locked himself into position.

The cameras love demonstrations, but they are frequently not the real
story. The demonstrators who wanted democracy are a real faction, but
they don’t speak for the shopkeepers and peasants more interested in
prosperity than wealth. Since Egypt is a Muslim country, the West
freezes when anything happens, dreading the hand of Osama bin Laden. In
Egypt, the Muslim
was once a powerful force, and it might become one
again someday, but right now it is a shadow of its former self. What is
going on now is a struggle within the military, between generations, for
the future of the Egyptian military and therefore the heart of the
Egyptian regime. Mubarak will leave, the younger officers will emerge,
the constitution will make some changes and life will continue.

The Israelis will return to their complacency. They should not. The
usual first warning of a heart attack is death. Among the fortunate, it
is a mild coronary followed by a dramatic change of life style. The
events in Egypt should be taken as a mild coronary and treated with
great relief by Israel that it wasn’t worse.

Reconsidering the Israeli Position

I have laid out the reasons why the 1978 treaty is in Egypt’s
national interest. I have left out two pieces. The first is ideology.
The ideological tenor of the Middle East prior to 1978 was secular and
socialist. Today it is increasingly Islamist. Egypt is not immune to
this trend, even if the Muslim Brotherhood should not be seen as the
embodiment of that threat. Second, military technology, skills and
terrain have made Egypt a defensive power for the past 33 years. But
military technology and skills can change, on both sides. Egyptian
defensiveness is built on assumptions of Israeli military capability and
interest. As Israeli ideology becomes more militant and as its
capabilities grow, Egypt may be forced to reconsider its strategic
posture. As new generations of officers arise, who have heard of war
only from their grandfathers, the fear of war declines and the desire
for glory grows. Combine that with ideology in Egypt and Israel and
things change. They won’t change quickly — a generation of military
transformation will be needed once regimes have changed and the
decisions to prepare for war have been made — but they can change.

Two things from this should strike the Israelis. The first is how
badly they need peace with Egypt. It is easy to forget what things were
like 40 years back, but it is important to remember that the prosperity
of Israel today depends in part on the treaty with Egypt. Iran is a
distant abstraction, with a notional
bomb whose completion date keeps moving
. Israel can fight many wars
with Egypt and win. It need lose only one. The second lesson is that
Israel should do everything possible to make certain that the transfer
of power in Egypt is from Mubarak to the next generation of military
officers and that these officers maintain their credibility in Egypt.
Whether Israel likes it or not, there is an Islamist movement in Egypt.
Whether the new generation controls that movement as the previous one
did or whether they succumb to it is the existential question for
Israel. If the treaty with Egypt is the foundation of Israel’s national
security, it is logical that the Israelis should do everything possible
to preserve it.

This was not the fatal heart attack. It might not even have been more
than indigestion. But recent events in Egypt point to a long-term
problem with Israeli strategy. Given the strategic and ideological
crosscurrents in Egypt, it is in Israel’s national interest to minimize
the intensity of the ideological and make certain that Israel is not
perceived as a threat. In Gaza, for example, Israel
and Egypt may have shared a common interest in containing Hamas
and the next generation of Egyptian officers may share it as well. But
what didn’t materialize in the streets this time could in the future: an
Islamist rising. In that case, the Egyptian military might find it in
its interest to preserve its power by accommodating the Islamists. At
this point, Egypt becomes the problem and not part of the solution.

Keeping Egypt from coming to this is the imperative of military
dispassion. If the long-term center of gravity of Israel’s national
security is at least the neutrality of Egypt, then doing everything to
maintain that is a military requirement. That military requirement must
be carried out by political means. That requires the recognition of
priorities. The future of Gaza or the precise borders of a Palestinian
state are trivial compared to preserving the treaty with Egypt. If it is
found that a particular political strategy undermines the strategic
requirement, then that political strategy must be sacrificed.

In other words, the worst-case scenario for Israel would be a return
to the pre-1978 relationship with Egypt without a settlement with the
Palestinians. That would open the door for a potential two-front war
with an intifada in the middle. To avoid that, the ideological pressure
on Egypt must be eased, and that means a settlement with the
Palestinians on less-than-optimal terms. The alternative is to stay the
current course and let Israel take its chances. The question is where
the greater safety lies. Israel has assumed that it lies with
confrontation with the Palestinians. That’s true only if Egypt stays
neutral. If the pressure on the Palestinians destabilizes Egypt, it is
not the most prudent course.

There are those in Israel who would argue that any release in
pressure on the Palestinians will be met with rejection. If that is
true, then, in my view, that is catastrophic news for Israel. In due
course, ideological shifts and recalculations of Israeli intentions will
cause a change in Egyptian policy. This will take several decades to
turn into effective military force, and the first conflicts may well end
in Israeli victory. But, as I have said before, it must always be
remembered that no matter how many times Israel wins, it need only lose
once to be annihilated.

To some it means that Israel should remain as strong as possible. To
me it means that Israel should avoid rolling the dice too often,
regardless of how strong it thinks it is. The Mubarak affair might open a
strategic reconsideration of the Israeli position.

George Friedman, is chairman and CEO of Stratfor, the world’s
leading online publisher of geopolitical intelligence.


Get the Free Mercator Newsletter

Get the news you may not get anywhere else, delivered right to your inbox.
Your info is safe with us, we will never share or sell you personal data.

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.