As Israel prepares for its second ground war in Gaza in the last four years, some are beginning to compare its present response to Operation Cast Lead. To be sure, the actors (Hamas and Israel), geography (Gaza) and underlying factors (Gaza's rocket attacks on Israel had reached an unacceptable pace) are virtually identical. Perhaps the only difference is the quality of the rocket attacks; they now reach Israel's most vital population centers.
While the world's attention is understandably on the Israel-Gaza border, the results and trajectory of this conflict may be determined elsewhere: by Egypt. There are three reasons why Egypt's behavior during this conflict will determine the extent and scope of the IDF's operations in Gaza and the broader region.
First, the long-range rockets fired by Hamas from Gaza into Israel did not originate in Gaza. They most likely originated from Iran and were smuggled via the Egyptian-Gaza border. Responsibility for patrolling this border falls on the Egyptian security forces. The emergence of these weapons, along with Egypt's quick and vocal support for Hamas following the onset of the Israeli Air Force (IAF) air strikes in Gaza, suggests that Egypt has at the very least become a passive enabler of Hamas.
Second, for the first time Egypt's willingness to exercise its role as mediator between Hamas and Israel is in doubt. Early reports have Egypt pushing for a cease-fire behind the scenes. Were this true it would be sharply at odds with Egypt's more visible positions in recent days that saw it actively condemning Israeli actions and actively supporting Palestinian "resistance."
Third and lastly, the peace of the Sinai Peninsula, which is a core pillar of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, is eroding. Beginning with the fall of Mubarak last year, this erosion has continued unabated under President Morsi. The first signs of this deterioration came last August when an Israeli bus near the Israel-Egypt border was attacked by Islamist militants resulting in the deaths of 7 Israelis. Subsequent activity in the Sinai, mostly targeting oil pipelines en route to Israel and Jordan, have raised concerns that a post-Mubarak Egypt might be less effective in maintaining the peace. Should Sinai become a further security problem for Israel, its 1979 Treaty with Egypt will be imperiled.
Israel's recent call up of some 75,000 reservists suggests that Egypt's behavior may be a factor in its planned operations for Gaza and perhaps beyond. These 75,000 are up from the 30,000 already mobilized for the Gaza border, far exceeding the numbers involved in Operation Cast Lead. It is highly unlikely all these forces will serve time in Gaza; raising the possibility of further tension between Israel and Egypt.