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Leaked Cables on Israel: Repairing Egyptian-Israeli Communications

(December 17, 2007)

Classified U.S. diplomatic cables, leaked by the whistleblower site WikiLeaks, contained details of tension between Egypt and Israel over Egypt's management of the Gaza border. The greatest sources of tension between the two governments are outlined and the U.S. offers itself as a mediator for border security discussions between Egypt and Israel to repair communications.

17 December 2007
S E C R E T CAIRO 003503
E.O. 12958: DECL: 12/16/2017
Classified By: Ambassador Francis J. Ricciardone for reasons 1.4(b) and (d).

1.(S) Summary/Introduction: Egyptian-Israeli communications have suffered because of Egypt's management of the Gaza border, its contacts with Hamas and the impact of both issues on Congressional action to impose conditions on Egypt's FMF. The Israelis charge that Cairo is soft on Hamas and not just tolerating, but complicit in smuggling. The Egyptians insist that they are doing their best to stem smuggling and claim national interests, including security, require them to sustain communications with Hamas. They also blame Israel for the Congressional debate over conditioning USD 200 million of FMF on improvements in Gaza border security, and call this a "hostile act." The Egyptians are so aggrieved that they now welcome U.S. mediation in their discussions with the Israelis. Each side appears seriously to misjudge the other's national security and political interests at stake over Gaza/Hamas, and much else. We believe our offer to help get things back on track by joining Egyptian-Israeli border security discussions should remain on the table. The offer alone may help repair the seriously strained Egyptian-Israeli bilateral dialogue and thereby enable more cooperation. End summary and introduction.

Relations sour over smuggling -----------------------------

2. (S) Although we have no intelligence to support Israeli claims that heavy weaponry moves through the tunnels, even GOE officials privately admit that their anti-smuggling efforts remain insufficiently effective. The GOE still destroys only tunnel openings, and does not exploit or destroy the primary tunnel network. After the Secretary's intervention on October 16, Minister Tantawi relented and permitted a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) team to assess the border situation. Tantawi has responded to that assessment with a Letter of Request for robots to explore the tunnels and sensors to detect digging, among a total of USD 23 million in specialized equipment and training for border security. The USACE experts were careful to warn, however, that the Gaza border situation represents a "worst case" situation for tunneling, and that equipment is only part of the solution.

3. (S) A serious political commitment, supported by dedicated and properly trained personnel, is key to progress. The Egyptians claim that they respond aggressively to Israeli intelligence leads, while both sides bicker over whether and how Egypt could deploy more Border Guard Forces. Meanwhile, the Egyptians continue to offer excuses for the problem they face: the need to "squeeze" Hamas, while avoiding being seen as complicit in Israel's "siege" of Gaza. Egyptian General Intelligence Chief Omar Soliman told us Egypt wants Gaza to go "hungry" but not "starve." Minister of Defense Field Marshal Tantawi and the Director of Military Intelligence MG Mowafy both pressed recently for the return of EUBAM monitors to oversee the crossing between Gaza and Egypt of Palestinians with urgent humanitarian circumstances. In their moments of greatest frustration, Tantawi and Soliman each have claimed that the IDF would be "welcome" to re-invade Philadelphi, if the IDF thought that would stop the smuggling.

...worsen over Hamas --------------------

4. (S) On September 30, the Egyptians abetted the passage of 84 alleged Hamas members into Gaza through the Philadelphi Corridor. Although the Egyptians denied Israeli claims that the group included Iran-trained terrorists, they said they had tried unsuccessfully to coordinate the Palestinians' return with the Israelis, and could not have a "refugee camp" in Sinai.

5. (S) Egypt's early December decision to allow approximately 2,000 Hajj pilgrims to enter Egypt at Rafah made matters worse. Both the Israelis and the PA complained bitterly about apparent Egyptian and Saudi complicity in arranging the pilgrims' passage, which evidently involved obtaining Saudi visas for the Hajj in Cairo. The Egyptians remind us that they warned us, the Israelis and the PA that if they did not facilitate the pilgrims' passage, Hamas would blow a hole in the wall and the Egyptians would not be able to control the influx that ensued (Ref B). They say they chose the least bad option, and that they are determined to avoid Hamas' exploitation of Egypt by the pilgrims' return journeys later this month. Whatever the justification, the Egyptians' failure to coordinate their actions with the Israelis or the PA caused considerable political resentment all around.

...and turn "hostile" over conditioning Egypt's FMF --------------------------------------------- ------

6. (S) Egypt's belief that Israel encouraged Congress to condition a portion of FMF on improved border security has further heightened tension. The Egyptians were stung by the distribution of an Israeli-MFA paper, and a subsequent letter from Israeli parliamentarian Yuval Steinitz, criticizing Egypt's counter-smuggling effort on Capitol Hill just as the budget debates heated up. Although Israeli diplomats here downplayed the MFA paper as unauthorized, Soliman repeatedly characterized perceived Israeli lobbying as a "hostile act." FM Aboul Gheit did not get the apology he expected from FM Livni when he met her in Lisbon in November (Ref C). Presidential Advisor Soliman Awad told the Ambassador that when Mubarak complained to PM Olmert on November 24 that Israel was hurting Egypt on the Hill, Olmert claimed to have no idea and appeared to blame Defense Minister Barak. (Mubarak had welcomed Barak's interest in coming to Cairo, and took offense when Barak canceled, evidently under political pressure from Olmert. Amos Gilad is expected in Cairo on December 17.)

7.(C) Ignoring serious USG and Congressional concerns about human rights, border security, and judicial independence, the Egyptians have concluded that Israel will be responsible should the U.S. condition a portion of FMF, either in pending FY08 legislation or in our upcoming FY09 request. They also draw a straight line from the U.S. decision to increase Israel's FMF (breaking the traditional 3/2 Israeli-Egyptian FMF formula) to Israeli ambivalence about both Egyptian aid levels and conditionality.

Repairing Egyptian-Israeli Communications -----------------------------------------

8. (S) The Egyptians are surprised and alarmed at the turn their relations with both the U.S. and Israel have taken in recent months. Mubarak and his security chiefs viscerally want Hamas "to fail." They thought their self-interest in this objective was so obvious to us, to Abu Mazen, and to the Israelis -- as it is to Mubarak's domestic opposition -- as to be beyond all question. They are looking for a way to get things back on track with the U.S. and the Israelis and to do all they can to thwart Hamas, but the GOE is intensely uncomfortable at squeezing the people of Gaza in the face of opposition charges that Mubarak, as America's tool, is supporting Israel's "siege of Gaza." Also, it is unclear whether the MOD can get a full grip on the fundamental security concerns in the Sinai, especially smuggling, given the practical restraints of troop limits and the generally poor performance of the Egyptian armed forces overall. The GOE wants regular openings at Rafah, when circumstances allow, to reduce the economic pressure that sustains smuggling and to ease the Gazans' humanitarian crisis while keeping Hamas under pressure. They also want their discussions with the United States, particularly when it comes to Egypt's FMF, not to pass through a perceived "Israeli filter" (Ref D). Meanwhile, the Egyptians show no grasp of Israeli outrage at continuing mortar and rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza -- mirroring the Israeli failure to comprehend the GOE's dilemma over Gaza and Hamas.

9. (S) DASes Danin and Kimmitt made important inroads in Cairo in helping GOE security chiefs understand that their failure to stop Hamas' exploitation of the Gaza-Egypt border is of direct concern to the U.S, and not merely an artifice contrived by the Israelis. The Egyptians also now understand that we expect them to cooperate more effectively with Israel and the PA on this issue, and they seem eager to prove to us that they are doing their part. The fact that the Egyptians now welcome a trilateral meeting to deal with Gaza border issues (Refs A,D-F) indicates how worried they are about the strain in their relations with Israel and with us. The sources of greatest tension -- smuggling, Hamas, and debates over Egypt's FMF -- will persist. We recommend that trilateral meetings (and perhaps eventually multilateral meetings, with the PA and EUBAM) could only help. Ricciardone

Sources: Wikileaks