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Netanyahu's opportunism and the crisis in Mali

January 23, 2014 at 6:14 pm

Eleven days ago, France launched an operation in Mali to help the government push back Islamist rebels with links to Al-Qaeda. The move had considerable international support. One of the world leaders congratulating French president Francois Hollande for taking action was Israel’s Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu.

“You took a brave step against extremist Islamic terrorism,” he told Hollande on the telephone last week. He added: “While there are countries for which the threat of terrorism is thousands of kilometres away from the homes of their citizens, we in Israel are familiar with the threat of global terrorism from up close. For us it is only a few hundred meters away from our homes.”

Referencing the Israel-Palestine conflict, his comments also appeared to draw a comparison between the situation in Mali and that in Sinai, the Egyptian peninsula that borders Israel. Chaos and violence in the neglected region has been growing ever since Hosni Mubarak, long-time dictator of Egypt and ally of Israel, was ousted in 2011. An impoverished area inhabited mainly by Bedouin, Sinai is something of a security vacuum. The population is marginalised, and resentment and radicalism have been growing for years. It now appears that some Al-Qaeda linked groups are operating there, while arms flow in from Libya.

Netanyahu’s supportive comments to France have prompted some speculation in the Arabic press that he may be drumming up support for an intervention in Sinai. Given his warmongering tendencies and the fact that today’s election is likely to see the formation of an even more right-wing, hawkish government, it is easy to see where this anxiety comes from.

However, Israel currently has bigger fish to fry, with Netanyahu fixated on Iran’s nuclear programme. And recent example suggests that it will be cautious in its handling of the situation in Sinai. In August last year, militants from Sinai killed 15 Egyptian security personnel in the border town of Rafah, before crossing the border into Israel with a pick-up truck full of explosives. They drove a mile into Israel before being struck by a missile from an Israeli military plane. Had the attack not been foiled, senior officials said that many Israelis in small communities near the border could have died. There have been several other significant cross-border attacks, while a pipeline supplying gas to Israel has been blown up more than a dozen times.
Well before the August attack, in November 2011, the former IDF deputy chief of staff, Uzi Dayan said that “if there is a lack of alternatives”, Israel should consider intervening in Sinai.
Israel is not usually reticent when it comes to taking action against foreign countries in order to protect its own citizens and interests. Yet it did not go into Sinai after the cross-border attacks. The reason is the delicate political situation. In 1979, Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty, which made Sinai a demilitarised zone with strict limits on ground forces. If Israel sent in troops, it would undermine the treaty and could lead to it ending. Given existing anxiety in Israel about the durability of the treaty under the new Muslim Brotherhood regime, it is unlikely it will take steps that could end it altogether. The stakes are simply too high.
Jolted by the loss of 15 soldiers, Egypt’s president, Mohammed Morsi, sprung into action after the August attack. He sacked the head of the intelligence service, the governor of North Sinai, and other high ranking officials, and attacked militants with helicopter gunships. For the time being, it appears to have placated the situation.
The volatility of Sinai means that further conflict is highly likely. However, there is little basis to believe that a unilateral Israeli invasion is on the cards. As he prepares to be voted into his second term, Netanyahu is far more likely to keep his attention on Iran.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.