Thursday, May 10, 2012

War Between Egypt and Israel?

It doesn’t make any sense that Egypt and Israel would go to war. It’s in no one’s best interest.

Walter Russell Mead explained yesterday that diplomacy should be able to solve the disputes between the two nations.

Unfortunately, that does not by any means guarantee that there will be no military conflict between Egypt and Israel.

Yesterday, I reported on the Egyptian presidential campaign. We saw supporters of a leading candidate are calling for war with Israel.

Conflict might be avoidable, but it requires serious diplomacy and the good will of both parties.

The trigger for conflict was Egypt’s cancelling an agreement to provide natural gas to Israel.  It is not in Egypt’s interest to stop selling gas to its biggest customer, but that is what it did. Egypt used to provide some 40% of Israel’s energy needs.

Even if Egypt promises to respect the agreement, it has been largely unable to stop terrorist sabotage of the pipeline that delivers the gas.

I think it far to say that Egypt’s decision to cut off 40% of Israel’s energy can be seen as an act of war.

In addition, a clear majority of Egyptians wants to abrogate the peace treaty with Israel.

Walter Russell Mead explains the situation:

The rhetoric on both sides is escalating. Israel’s Finance Ministry called Egypt’s decision ”a dangerous precedent that casts clouds over the peace agreements and the atmosphere of peace between Egypt and Israel.” Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi warned that Egypt’s border was “perpetually in danger.” Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Egypt was a “greater threat than Iran.” Egyptian officials have said they were well within their rights to cancel the deal—a Muslim Brotherhood spokesman called the decision “excellent.” In response, Israel appears to have mobilized six reserve battalions to defend the border with Egypt, as well as Syria.

For an Egyptian government in turmoil and in need of cash, picking a fight with Israel over natural gas serves no one. Israel on its part would also be wise to avoid antagonizing the country that supplies so much of its electricity. Several experienced Middle East watchers have suggested that the United States, which has close relations with both the Egyptian and Israeli governments, should step in to mediate and also bolster security forces in Sinai, which is largely lawless desert full of smugglers and fighting tribes. As Steve Cook writes, ”If the United States does not wake up to the danger that the Sinai poses and the Israelis are forced to respond to a terrorist attack from the Sinai, the Egypt-Israel peace treaty is over.”

It’s a diplomatic challenge for the Obama/Clinton foreign policy team. We will see how it all works out.

Keep in mind that just because something is highly improbable that does not mean that it will not happen. It just means that the event is a black swan.

A few years ago Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote a book about black swans, events that are so improbable that no one prepares for them.

Taleb suggests that we are always preparing for what happened yesterday. Preparing for the improbable makes us look a little crazy; we prefer to present ourselves as rational and sensible. Thus, we tend to be blindsided by what we don't expect to happen.

I am not predicting that there will be war between Egypt and Israel. I am pointing out, as Mead does and as Caroline Glick did, that the situation over there is heating up and that we do not really know what will happen.

While everyone’s eyes are fixed on Iran and even Syria, it may very well be that the real danger lies in Egypt.

True enough, Egypt cannot afford a war. It can barely feed its people. And yet, as Dennis commented after the last post, the PLO and Hamas cannot afford war, and yet they are still fighting one.

To us, their interest lies in peace and prosperity. To them, it lies in a holy war to restore the pride that they lost when Israelis succeeded where they failed. 

At the least, it’s worth the time and trouble to think beyond the conventional wisdom.


Ares Olympus said...

It looks like Egypt has only been exporting natural gas since about 2005, and recently become a net oil importer. When the NG runs down, they'll have triple the population since when they started producing oil. It looks like emmigration will soon be a high pressure in an ugly future coming, war or not.
The relentless math:
Population 1960: 27.8 million
Population 2008: 81.7 million
Rainfall average over whole country: ~ 2 inches per year
Highest rainfall region: Alexandria, 7.9 inches per year
Arable land (almost entirely in the Nile Valley): 3%
Arable land per capita: 0.04 Ha (400 m2)
Food imports: 40% of requirements

Anonymous said...

Anyone who thinks that Obama and/or Clinton has Israel's best interest in mind wasn't paying attention when Iran, Egypt, Libya, and Syria had their respective popular revolts.

The only positive for Israel, as far as Obama's foreign policy is concerned, is that Obama really wants to get four more years in office. A shooting war between Israel and its neighbors is too much of a wild card.

So, for the next six months at least, expect Obama to attempt to maintain the status quo.

anna said...

The PLO isn't fighting a war, they're trying to negotiate a peace.

Having Israel's best interest at heart or just as policy, they are our best middle east friends, doesn't mean that you follow the hard right over there, anymore than being for or against the hard right here means you're for or against the USA. There are a lot of ideas on how to resolve the problems, but to my mind the biggest problem is the system in Israel, it's (if possible) too democratic, in that there are too many parties and so no one party ever wins with a majority, they have to cobble one together with either more left or more right parties. So they all have to appease settlers to stay in power, which makes one think of Greece's democracy problem.

It's interesting how much is going into stopping Israel from bombing Iran. And it seems the credible threat has been working, so if this is a bluff, and one hopes this is and not ideology (as prominent Israel's have suggested) like with Bush and Iraq, it's worked.

Dennis said...

The PLO has never recognize Israel's right to exist as a nation. The last thing on HAMAS or the PLO is negotiating a peace. There have been many a time throughout the last 40 to 50 years for negotiating a peace and the PLO has rejected everyone of them.
The PLO stated objective has been to destroy Israel and that has not changed since the days of Arafat.
One marvels at anna being an expert of all things military, an expert on history and political science, being a Middle East expert, et al. Just to read the second paragraph is an example of naiveté.
As soon as one is left having to defend Obama one mentions Bush. The question is are we better off in any meaningful way under Obama? By any measure the answer is NO. It is why we get all of this devise clap trap meant to hide from Obama's real record. If Obama was doing well on the economy he would be running on it. If Obama was doing well in foreign affairs he would be running on it. One could just take every measure of being a chief executive and if Obama was doing well he would run on it.
At some point Obama has to take responsibility for his actions and stop sending his minions out to blame Bush. If he had a record he would run on it.