After Sinai attacks, an opening for Israeli-Egyptian cooperation

jerusalem | The coordinated terrorist attacks on Israeli tourists in Sinai may have some significant, unintended consequences: a deepening of anti-terrorism cooperation between Israel and Egypt and greater Egyptian readiness to guarantee security in the Gaza Strip after Israel’s planned withdrawal next summer.

At first glance, the Oct. 7 attacks were a blow to Middle Eastern rapprochement. It could take years before Israeli tourism to Sinai — one of the few signs of people-to-people normalcy in Israel’s relations with the Arab world — returns to anything like the dimensions of this past holiday season.

With one wing of the hotel reduced to rubble, one reporter said the shattered building suggested a scarred monument to failed visions of peace. But some noted another image: Israeli and Egyptian rescue workers sifting through rubble together.

Soon afterward, Israeli field agents were allowed to scour the scenes of the Sinai bombings for evidence. They worked closely with Egyptian security agents and were given information from Egyptian interrogations of suspects and eyewitnesses.

This constituted cooperation of an unprecedented nature for Egyptian authorities, who have been wary of cooperating with security agents of what many Egyptians still consider the “Zionist enemy.”

Though Israeli tourists were targeted, some Israeli counterterrorism experts believe the attackers’ primary goal was to destabilize the Egyptian regime.

The attacks were designed mainly to hit Egypt’s tourism industry, weaken the economy and destabilize the regime, Ganor said. If that’s indeed the case, Egypt has an obvious interest in cooperating with all intelligence services, including Israel’s, that can supply advance warning of planned attacks and help target would-be perpetrators.

For most of the 25 years that Egypt and Israel have been nominally at peace, such cooperation would have been unthinkable. Still, despite strong Egyptian criticism of Israel’s handling of the Palestinian intifada, ties had been warming for several months before the Sinai attacks. The most significant upgrading came in late May, when President Hosni Mubarak affirmed Egypt’s readiness to help keep the peace in Gaza after Israel’s planned withdrawal.

In late May, Mubarak and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon agreed to set up political, security and economic committees to upgrade all aspects of the countries’ bilateral relationship.

Israeli analysts attribute the change in Egypt’s attitude to Sharon’s plan to disengage from the Palestinians. They say the Egyptians are motivated by fear that after Israel’s withdrawal, Hamas will seize control of the Gaza Strip and make it a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism that could spill over into Egypt.

Now, after the Sinai bombings, Egypt has far more reason for concern. There is a palpable danger that Global Jihad would see a Hamas-controlled Gaza as a golden opportunity to establish a land base against Cairo. That gives Egypt added incentive to cooperate with Israel.

Eventually, ties between Cairo and Jerusalem could mirror those Israel has with Jordan and Turkey — where, despite abiding popular hostility toward Israel, the regimes work closely at the highest strategic levels.

Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.