As Israelis celebrate the 64th anniversary of the creation of their state in the land of historic Palestine, officials are warning of a new security threat. This, it seems, is not the bogey of Iranian nuclear weapons, but neighbouring Egypt, Israel’s long-time ally. The recent decision by the Egyptian authorities to stop the export of natural gas at preferential rates to Israel underlines both the tensions and transformation in relations between the two countries.
In 2005, the ousted Mubarak regime signed a twenty-year agreement for the export of natural gas to Israel for a price ranging between seventy cents to $1.5 per million thermal units. The current price for the commodity on the world market is $5 per million thermal units. The people of Egypt are, understandably, angered deeply by this misappropriation of a vital national resource, especially because 50 per cent of the country’s 85 million population live below the poverty line.
Many believed the former Egyptian dictator gave this mind-boggling concession to Israel in order to curry favour with the Americans and win their support for the transfer of the presidency to his son, Jamal. Moreover, since Mubarak’s overthrow in February 2011, the pipeline conveying the gas to Israel has been blown up 15 times in the North Sinai region.
Although the abrogation of the export deal was linked to popular protest, there may yet be other reasons forthcoming. Egyptian analysts believe that the timing was linked to an attempt by the military hierarchy to pre-empt any investigation by a new civilian government into the mismanagement of the national economy by the previous regime. Whatever the case, the decision suggests that Egypt is emerging from its political coma and is now on a trajectory to resume its natural leadership role in the region. Under Mubarak, the virtual giveaway of Egypt’s natural gas to Israel while besieged Gaza was kept in the cold and dark was seen as patently unpatriotic and, indeed, treacherous.
Despite their best efforts to minimise the importance Egypt’s decision, none can deny that it came as a blow to the Israelis. The issue of “energy security” was discussed at the 12th Herzilya conference in January. A paper was presented by Ori Slonim with the title, “The gas findings and Israel’s future energy security”; it generated an intense debate on how to secure and diversify gas supplies, particularly in the Levant Basin, which has an area of 83,000 square kilometers, and includes Lebanon, Syria, Cyprus and the Gaza Strip. A US geological survey estimates that this basin holds 1.7 billion barrels of extractable oil, and 122 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Tapping into this source, however, may prove to be even more problematic than the termination of the Egyptian supply.
Egypt’s transition from dictatorship to democracy has been viewed with scepticism in Israel. The unarguable popularity of the Islamic parties has been extremely disturbing for many Israelis, who fear that this will be translated into greater support for the Palestinians, not least the besieged population in the Gaza Strip.
Immediately after Mubarak’s ousting, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the construction of a wall along the border with Egypt to be speeded up. More recently, he also ordered the deployment of Special Forces to the area, comparing the Sinai to the American wild west. This bellicose rhetoric did not go down well in Cairo, and the leader of the military council, Muhammad Hussein Tantawi, was obliged to issue a strong warning against any infringement of Egypt’s sovereign territory.
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is reported to have sent a note to the Prime Minister pointing out the possible dangers from the changes taking place in Egypt. In a closed meeting, he claimed the issue of Egypt is more worrying than any threat from Iran. From the Egyptian perspective, though, Israel’s so-called security concerns are driven by a broader political agenda.
If the Israeli establishment hoped that their “concerns” over security were going to deliver political concessions from Egypt, they were mistaken. Former General and Knesset member Benjamin Ben Elizier welcomed the proposed candidacy of former intelligence chief Omar Sulaiman for Egyptian president. His untimely remarks sent alarm bells ringing in Cairo and, following widespread protest, the electoral commission disqualified Sulaiman. Ben-Elizier was not the only high profile Israeli to support Sulaiman’s bid; Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom also believed Sulaiman’s candidacy to be a positive development.
Thus, the current hysteria about the “security threat” from Egypt has to be seen as part of a rear-guard effort to salvage as much as possible from the defunct regime and secure Israel’s energy, economic and political interests. Given the existing tensions, Israel is now left with no other option but to play the American card and ask Washington to put pressure on Egypt. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has already indicated that she is ever ready to oblige. At the Munich Security Conference in February, she threatened to cut aid to Egypt, which now stands at $250 million a year in economic aid and $1.5 billion annually for the military.
Egypt has changed dramatically, it is true, but the process has only just begun. With the military council still very much in charge, the coming weeks will see an intensification of calls for a faster and more complete transition to civilian rule. Whether these changes please Israel or not appears to be irrelevant for the Egyptians, and we can expect the Israelis and their supporters to cry wolf for the foreseeable future. Cairo, meanwhile, will begin to put its own interests ahead of Israel’s, as any responsible government should; not, it has to be said, before time.