The issue of smuggling through the Gaza Strip’s Philadelphi Route has cast a shadow on Israeli-Egyptian ties for some time now. The unusually harsh Israeli response by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni,
which preceded Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s visit to Egypt, has boosted the level of tension between the two countries.
Should Israel continue the assertive line against Egypt? Or should such messages be relayed behind closed doors only? Three former Israeli ambassadors to Egypt expressed their views regarding the conduct Israel should adopt in order to ease tensions between the sides.
Ex-ambassador Eli Shaked believes that Minister Livni was right to openly criticize Egyptian inaction along the border with Gaza. “The issue of smuggling through Philadelphi should be raised and we must not ease the pressure,” he said. “It would be good to see senior figures such as the foreign minister raising this issue on occasion and giving expression to the concern and dissatisfaction over Egypt’s conduct.”
Shaked is not overly apprehensive regarding the current crisis and said he believes this is a common ritual that repeats itself twice a year. “Again Israel is expressing open criticism and dissatisfaction, and again the Egyptians get insulted, and again, as they always do, they return the ball to Israel’s court and calling for an increase in the number of Egyptian soldiers deployed on the border,” he said. “The crisis is seemingly behind us, after the foreign minister was ‘put in her place,’ but we must not forget this is a malignant problem.”
Shaked believes that Egypt is not doing enough to address the smuggling, and that Israel must continue to act through all available channels in order to boost the pressure on the Egyptians to act on this issue. “First of all, we must do those things directly vis-à-vis the Egyptians, through diplomatic channels, yet at the same time we should continue exerting pressure and holding talks with Washington.”
“Egypt has the power to address the smuggling problem, just like they addressed the problem that was created following the bombings in Sharm el-Sheikh and Taba,” Shaked concluded.
‘Egypt can do more’
On the other hand, there are those who believe that Israel should not intensify its public pressure on Egypt. Former Ambassador Zvi Mazel believes that Egypt is not the target for matters pertaining to the curbing of the arms smuggling.
“Regrettably, Israel has not yet understood the Egyptians to this day. We do not recognize them as a regional power, and we think they will do the job for Israel,” he said. “In the disengagement we thought that Egypt would do the job for us so we left the Philadelphi Route, but Egypt has its own interests, and they will not fight the Palestinians or defending Israel.”
Mazel criticized Minister Livni’s remarks, which he said only worsened Israel’s ties with Egypt. “Criticizing the Egyptians in an open forum is a complete folly. If the foreign minister did not know that her comments to the Knesset Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee will be leaked, she’s naïve, and if she knew that everything will be leaked, she deliberately complicated Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s visit to Egypt.”
According to Mazel, the latest crisis with Egypt is already behind us, yet he said he expects that ongoing smuggling will continue to afflict ties between the two countries, and only diplomatic activity with the Americans will resolve the situation. “We made a strategic mistake in Philadelphi, and now we are facing a very difficult situation. We have a lot of work to do vis-à-vis Egypt.”
David Sultan, who also served as Israel’s ambassador to Egypt, believes that just like the ties between the two countries overcame crises in the past, the same will happen this time around. According to Sultan, Israel should focus on a direct and discreet dialogue with the Egyptians.
“When there is a problem, we should discuss it directly, as Defense Minister Ehud Barak did. The proper formula is to make less open statements and conduct more direct contacts between Israel and Egypt,” he said.