Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Thursday morning that the Sinai was becoming a “terror zone” after a rocket fired from the vast and largely uninhabited peninsula hit the Israeli resort town of Eilat. Though no one was injured by the rocket attack, it nevertheless struck at the core of the fragility of Egyptian-Israeli relations.
The Sinai has historically been a security challenge for Israel, but ever since the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt, the region has been low on Israel's list of concerns – until now. Israel fears that extremist groups ranging from Hamas to Al-Qaeda are exploiting the lawlessness of the Sinai to prepare and carry out attacks against Israel and its interests, such as the Egyptian pipeline that provides Israel with much of its gas supply. This security challenge is amplified by Israel's deteriorating relationship with Egypt, which was precipitated by (among other things) an Israeli raid into Egypt (following a terrorist attack) that resulted in the deaths of three Egyptian policemen. Egypt claims to have insufficient resources in the Sinai to counter these groups, a by-product of the peace treaty that limits the number of forces that can be stationed on Israel's border. Israel has in the past permitted Egypt to increase forces on the border in order to crackdown on these groups, but with Egypt's political stability question, Israeli officials are fearful of allowing any more troops along its border.
This comes amidst the backdrop of the growing power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, a development that further worries the Israelis. While much of the west is engaging the Brotherhood, a recognition of the power that they command, Israel is approaching them with caution. After all, while the Brotherhood maintains that its elected representatives intend to uphold the peace treaty, on an organizational level it refuses to recognize Israel. While not ideal, this does present Israel with an opportunity to continue its relationship with Egypt, an opportunity that the Israelis need to capitalize on at all costs.
As Egypt prepares to elect its next president, Israel must realize that he/she will not be as friendly as Mubarak, but that doesn't mean they won't have friends in Cairo. Moreover, Israel must recognize that in order to prevent the Sinai from further deteriorating into a "terror zone," it must work with its Egyptian counterparts. And even though the Muslim Brotherhood refuses to recognize Israel, Israel must recognize that the Brotherhood's willingness to uphold the treaty is a concession in and of itself, and must be viewed as progress.
A rocket was fired into Israel from Egypt yesterday, and while Israel has every right to defend itself and likewise every right to demand its territorial integrity be respected, it must realize that Egypt did not fire that rocket. Egypt too is victim to the lawlessness of the Sinai, and at a time when Egypt's future is continuously uncertain, the worst thing Israel could do would be to over-react. As it strengthens its resolve to fight terror from the Sinai, it must also strengthen its resolve to strengthen its relationship with Egypt.