Crying Wolf, or Seeing One at the Door

You’ve all heard the philosophical question, If a tree falls in the forest, does anyone hear it? Here’s another one for you. If an army rises in the desert, will anyone worry about it?

For the last several years, I’ve been waging a lonely campaign to raise awareness about the growing danger to Israel of the now 22-year Egyptian military buildup. Up until recently that army rising in the desert seemed to go unnoticed by even the alarmists in the pro-Israel community. Earlier this year when I raised objections to the Clinton Administration’s proposed $3.2 billion sale of military equipment to Egypt, which included some of the most sophisticated weapons in the U.S. arsenal, no one else seemed concerned.

The reluctance to talk about the Egyptian military capability is largely due to the peace treaty. Even with the frigid nature of relations, the last 20 years have been free of hostilities. This is by far the most important development in the region since partition, dwarfing the significance of Oslo and its aftermath, so it cannot be underestimated. Israelis generally treat the Egyptians with kid gloves in the vain hope that they will one day truly change their attitudes and accept a Jewish state as a friendly neighbor. Similarly, the Israeli lobby adopted the position that Arab countries that made peace with Israel should be rewarded and, specifically, that no objections would be raised to selling them arms (a precedent to keep in mind when you read about the State Department’s enthusiasm for Israel to negotiate with Syria).

In the last month, however, I’ve noticed a slight change in attitude, at least in Israel. For the first time, stories have begun to appear in which Israeli officials have expressed concern about the Egyptian military purchases and admitted that Egypt is a more serious threat than far-off Iran or the largely defanged Iraq.

Why the change?

One reason is that the passage of time has shown Israeli realists that Egyptians still have no love for them. Of course, you need only read the Egyptian newspapers to see the level of overt anti-Semitism that exists.

The other reason for the newfound worry, or at least public acknowledgment of concern, is the modernization of the Egyptian army. For some years it was possible to downplay the Egyptian threat by saying their weapons were largely obsolete, but this is becoming less and less true. Egypt is now receiving Patriot anti-missile batteries and new F-16 fighters and M1-A1 tanks. Though still not as well trained as Israeli forces, the Egyptians are leveling the playing field with joint exercises with American forces and U.S.-made “smart” weapons and other top-of-the-line materiel. Besides improving the quality of their military, the Egyptians also have quantity. Egypt has 440,000 soldiers and another 254,000 in reserve compared to Israel's standing force of 175,000 and 430,000 reserves. Egypt has approximately 3,400 tanks and 505 aircraft while Israel has 4,300 and 780.

Don’t expect the Clinton Administration or its successor to question U.S. policy toward Egypt. It’s been a goal for decades to lure the Egyptians into the Western camp because the country is large, powerful and the most influential in the Arab world. On October 13, in fact, the U.S. was participating in what the Jerusalem Post described as the “biggest army maneuvers in two decades of Egyptian military history.”

Economics also plays a major role in the American decision-making process — the defense contractors are raking in billions supplying the arms. Of course, the Egyptians don’t pay for these weapons — they don’t have any money — it’s the American taxpayer who’s allowing the U.S. government to make these gifts to our allies. In addition, the U.S. foreign policy of indulgence does not allow the President to say “no” to friendly Arab leaders because it might hurt their feelings and cause them to publicly question relations with us, as if they were such great friends in the first place and had any alternative patrons.

It does not take a genius to figure out who the Egyptians are preparing to fight. They sure don’t need U.S. weapons to handle the nonexistent threats from Sudan or Libya. The official line on the recent exercise was that it was to help the participating countries confront crises like the one in Kosovo. Give me a break! The Egyptians aren’t going to contribute to any foreign crises; they barely participated in the Gulf War, which at least had some relevance to their interests. Egypt is preparing for war with Israel. Do I expect it in the near future? No, certainly not while Mubarak remains in power. He was just reelected President, but he’s also in his seventies. Who knows what the future holds in a country that was hostile to the United States and Israel for most of its history and continues to be challenged internally by radical Muslims who want the country to return to that policy?

Call me the guy who cried wolf if you like, but don’t be surprised when a wolf appears at Israel’s doorstep.