Last Thursday, the Israeli military accidentally killed five members of the Egyptian security forces during a border shootout. The army was retaliating against attacks by Gaza-based militants who killed eight Israelis and wounded 30 others. While this has strained relations between the two countries, both sides must exercise caution in dealing with the fallout.
Overreaction to an isolated incident is the greatest threat to long-term peace between Egypt and Israel because it could initiate an unnecessary escalation of events during Egypt’s piecemeal democratic transition.
Recent protests in Cairo, though, show that overreaction is a legitimate reaction. Protestors in Cairo demanded the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador to Egypt. Preliminary reports said the Egyptian government was recalling its own ambassador in Tel Aviv, although that story was later rescinded. Nevertheless, relations continue to deteriorate.
“Tensions between the two countries ... reached the worst point since the Camp David peace accords three decades ago,” reported the New York Times.
In an editorial published in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Ari Shavit wrote, “[The Egyptian revolution] has caused the peace between Israel and Egypt to crumble.”
The Daily News Egypt stated, “Relations between Egypt and Israel are likely to deteriorate.”
The media blitz only adds fuel to the fire. The 1979 Camp David Peace Accords remain the most robust peace treaty in the Middle East. In a part of the world where regional conflicts are mundane, peace is a rare commodity. Palestine, Syria, and Lebanon remain constant security threats to Israel, and rocket attacks, terrorist plots, and even all out wars are perennial.
In this light, a little perspective is warranted. If a relatively minor border skirmish with five accidental deaths, false rumors of ambassador recalls, and an apology from the Israeli government is the “worst point since Camp David,” then I would say that things are still pretty good.
The fear has less to do with the actual death of the Egyptian soldiers than it does with a fear of the unknown. With the Egyptian revolution still in full force, and major political and economic changes sweeping across the country, Israel fears the loss of a long-time trusted partner. The fact that the Gaza-based militants were able to launch attacks from Egyptian soil is a fair concern. But too much is happening too fast to lay excessive blame at this point in time. After all, Egypt is still ruled by a transitional military government that is too busy dealing with domestic upheavals and maintaining the status quo to make unnecessary trouble with its northern neighbor.
A democratic Egypt will only stabilize long-term relations with Israel. Therefore, Egyptian and Israeli leaders would be wise to make conciliatory statements, accept mutual apologies, address any security mistakes, and move on.
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