Lessons of the Past, Failures of the Present

By Ari Bussel

When there is an accelerated progression of events, a responsible party is expected to be ready for anything that may come next.

Let us take the case of the Israeli embassy in Cairo, Egypt, as an example. Israel and Egypt have maintained a peace for the last thirty-two years. Some may have described it as a cold peace, but it allowed Israel to redeploy its assets with a concentration on the northern front with Syria and Lebanon. There was no need to maintain a deterrent protective force of several divisions in the south.

Israel and Egypt cooperated on many fronts, security and the fight against terror being the most important of them. Thus, the naval “blockade” on Gaza is a joined attempt of both countries to prevent entrance of means of war (trained personal, weapons, money, etc.), to control the free movement of those engaged in terrorism and to avoid a fast vessel from becoming a weapon itself (much like airplanes were used on 9/11/2001) against critical infrastructure in Israel, just moments away from the Gaza seashore.

Egypt has acted as an intermediary between Israel and Hamas, Israel and the Palestinian Authority and Israel and others. For more than five years an Israeli soldier has been held in captivity and Egypt has repeatedly been the medium in negotiations. In all these instances, Egyptian military managed to maneuver, maintaining its image as a leading Arab country (i.e. no friend of Israel) on the one hand and a reasonable voice of reason that can work with the Arabs’ archenemy, the Israelis.

Undoubtedly it is very important for Israel to maintain peace with Egypt, however lukewarm it was, even cold or hostile it is becoming. This however does not allow throwing caution to the wind, to act stupidly or ignore the lessons of the past.

Early in 2011, the US President decided to drop the Egyptian President and demanded the latter take leave of his country. Singlehandedly, President Obama managed to topple a friendly regime that was otherwise stable for decades. History will show that like President Carter, who is singlehandedly responsible for the assent to power of the Islamic Republic of Iran, President Obama is responsible for enabling the Muslim Brotherhood to finally take over Egypt.

Did Israel immediately redeploy its forces, or at the very least was there a redrawing of the strategic threats map so that analyses and preparations could take place?

It did not appear so. The Sinai Peninsula became infested with highly trained enemies of Israel and immense firepower. An attack was carried out from Egypt into Israel proper, killing eight and wounding numerous others with precision, military style. Some of the events of the combined attack were implemented by those dressed as Egyptian soldiers and/or from their locations, and so several real Egyptian soldiers died in the events that ensued.

Israel has apologized deeply, for there was never an intention on Israel’s part to engage in fighting. This terror attack was forced upon Israel from within Egyptian territory, and Egypt is partially responsible for not controlling its own country. However, it was not Israel’s attempt to retaliate against Egypt—just to protect its citizens.

Egypt used its dead soldiers as an excuse for a tougher stand against Israel. A revenge of sorts was necessary to quench the thirst of the multitudes against Israel.

For many months the West was in awe of Arab multitudes, “youth” they were christened, demonstrating, often risking their lives, for a better life, for a regime change, for democracy. Israel, everyone noticed, was really not front-and-center in these demonstrations. But was that really the case? Hatred toward Israel and the Jews resonated throughout, with the possible exception in broadcasts to the West. Israel was the insurance policy: It could always be blamed.

When progress was slow, there was a turn of the tide and the anti-Israel sentiment flared up. All along it remained just inches below the surface, clearly visible and reachable. The sentiments of the populace were echoed by the military in control. The floodgates were slowly opened.

What ensued was a demonstrator scaling the building where the Israeli embassy is located and removing the Israeli flag. Following that incident, Egypt installed a protective wall around the building.

How was Israel to react to the changing political landscape in Egypt?

First, the families of all diplomats and all non-essential personnel should have returned to Israel. This is exactly what was done in Iran in 1978, when Israel sent jumbo jets to Teheran to evacuate all the women and children.

Still 70–80 people remained in Cairo and had to be evacuated by two Israeli jets.

Second, the remaining skeleton staff should have ensured that nothing was left at the embassy other than furniture and meaningless equipment. No documents, hard drives or anything of substance should have been left. Even if Israel was not yet practicing paperless offices, there should have been nothing in case the location of the ambassador had to be changed at a moment’s notice.

This was not done, for after the takeover documents were strewn across the street from where the embassy was housed. Accounts of the night in question indicate that the security guards were busy shredding documents to the very last minute.

Third, escape routes and drills constantly should have been conducted, with fully operational safe houses to which to relocate the personnel. I remember as a child going through these drills at the Israeli school in Teheran. We were instructed how to escape from an upper floor, when to use the roof and when to use the ground escape. Experts showed us how and where to hide and how to evacuate, and we repeatedly practiced these until they became routine.

I remember equally as vividly, three decades later, when I offered the Israeli Consul General in Los Angeles use of our offices in case they needed to relocate on the spare of the moment. It was tense times and such an eventuality could not be ruled out.

How is it possible that six people remained inside the embassy with only a metal door separating them and a lynch mob? Why were they still inside? What were they protecting?

If Khomeini’s ascent to power has taught us anything, it is that an embassy, whether Israeli, American or any other, is meaningless if the place is empty of any human being and of any classified material. Taking over a structure contradicts international conventions and practice, but one should care less about image and more about the lives of its people. Also, it is easy to remotely destroy a physical location when there is no threat to the country’s people still in hostile territory.

Fourth, Israel’s handling of the situation was miserable at best. Israel was unable to contact Tantawi, the head of the Supreme Military Council. He was “unavailable” or “unreachable,” so Israel ran as fast as it could to daddy and mommy to exert the full weight of the United States of America.

Is this the new reality: Israel as merely America’s child? Anything bad just run to daddy? Then you should not be surprised when you are treated as dependent, a person who cannot decide or act on its own. The word “sovereign” comes to mind. Has Israel lost that too? We should not be surprised when America tells Israel to stop building houses for its people in its own capital and expects Israel to do exactly as it is told.

We all remember what Israel accomplished in Entebbe. In Egypt the situation was different and evolving by the minute. So severe was the situation, the head of security implored the situation room that if his men and he are lynched, their families learn about their deaths in person. This was released to the media. A telenovela (soap opera) in real time, and how appropriate the victim was no other than the usual villain—the Israeli aggressor—with the fierce Mossad agents begging for their lives.

Tears dripping, almost filling buckets, the report from the situation room in Jerusalem is befitting the best thriller (or “24”) or the worse soap opera (or in Israel of yesteryears, the Friday early evening Arab movie). America to the rescue, oh those good and noble Americans. Israel no longer knows what to do or how to act independently.

Where were the Israelis? Incapable? Incapacitated? Afraid? Lacking ingenuity in face of adversity? Why was there not a mission en route to rescue the Israelis? Egypt is a friendly country and there is still a peace between the two countries. Would that have been construed as an act of war by Israel?

No one would buy such spin by Egypt, because every country expects and demands the integrity of its territory safeguarded by the host country. Be it the residence of its official representative (usually the ambassador) and/or the embassy, the car of the ambassador or the diplomatic mail. If these are violated in any way, a very delicate system all around the world is in jeopardy, one that is crucial to maintain.

The six Israelis in the embassy were not heroes and they should not have been there. The situation was indeed very serious, but it is all of Israel’s doing. Israel should have been prepared for such a development and not have resorted to begging the Americans for help.

In Entebbe, Israel showed such extraordinary courage and amazing spirit, its special forces became legendary. The meaning of employing creative and unexpected methods to protect one’s citizens, of performing miracles in the eyes of the world and showing how unique the new Jewish people were was carved in the collective mindset.

Decades have passed, and another member of the Netanyahu family is again leading Israel against all odds in a time of crisis. The first captivated our imagination with strength and wits, the latter with tears and the media.

Use your brains, Israel. Learn from the lessons of the past. Look around and internalize what is happening. Prepare and do not be caught again with your pants down. The sight is unpleasing and unnerving to you, and to the rest of us.

For those interested in the full account of what took place, as related by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, here is the translation as reported on Saturday, September 10, 2011:

Early this morning, at about 5:00 a.m., a complex rescue operation was safely completed to free the staff of the Israeli Embassy in Cairo. From inside the Situation Room at the Foreign Ministry, I worked alongside the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Minister of Defense, the Head of the Shabak, Head of the Mossad, the IDF Chief of Staff and all of their staffs. One overriding mission laid before us—to secure the welfare and safety of Israel’s emissaries. We worked together in a responsible manner to ensure that this situation would end in the best possible manner.

Immediately at the beginning of the incident, I ordered that all the Embassy staff and their families in Cairo be put on a plane and returned to Israel. At the same time we worked together with Egypt and the American government to assure that our remaining staff at the Embassy would be rescued without harm.

I would like to express my gratitude to the President of the United States, Barack Obama. I asked for his help. This was a decisive and fateful moment. He said, “I will do everything I can.” And so he did. He used every considerable means and influence of the United States to help us. We owe him a special measure of gratitude. This attests to the strong alliance between Israel and the United States. This alliance between Israel and the United States is especially important in these times of political storms and upheavals in the Middle East.

I wish to cite also the intervention of the Egyptian Commandos which prevented a tragedy. We maintained direct channels of communication throughout the night with the Egyptian government. It was clear to all that the defense of an Embassy, and particularly the Israeli Embassy, is the obligation of any sovereign state.

I therefore also appreciate the words of the Egyptian Information Minister who condemned the attack on the Israeli Embassy in Cairo. Many world leaders and Arab leaders joined him in this sentiment. I attach great importance to this. 

Israel will continue to adhere to the peace treaty with Egypt. We are working together with the Egyptian government to quickly return our Ambassador to Cairo. I wish to make sure that the necessary security arrangements for him and for our entire staff will be effective and will assure their necessary safety. At the same time, our diplomatic delegate in Cairo will continue to represent Israel until the Ambassador’s return.

During this long night, we were required to make many difficult decisions. I would like to share with you one conversation from this night. On the line was Yonatan, the security officer of the Embassy. He and his men, six in number, were trapped in the Embassy building. The mob entered the building and entered the office. Only one door separated between the mob and Yonatan and his friends. He sounded perfectly calm to me, and on the other hand understood the situation in which he and his colleagues found themselves.
During the ongoing event, he requested from the security officer in the Foreign Ministry one thing: If something happens to me, he said, my parents should be notified face to face, and not by telephone. I got on the phone line and I said to him, “Yonatan, be strong. I promise you that the State of Israel will do everything in its power and will use all possible resources in the world in order to rescue you and your friends unharmed and whole from this situation.”

And thank God this morning they all landed in Israel. A short while ago I spoke with Yonatan and his mother. They sounded wonderful.

I wish to say one more thing this evening to you, my fellow Israeli citizens: 
 The Middle East is now undergoing a political earthquake of historic proportions. Perhaps this can be compared to what happened a century ago at the end of the First World War with the establishment of a new world order. In the face of this historic turmoil we must act coolly and with responsibility. We must understand that these events are occurring as a result of deep and strong political undercurrents. We in Israel have a tendency to think that everything happens because of us or that we are somehow at fault for the turbulence in our area. There are many external and strong forces at work here. More than anything else, we must in these times act to safeguard our security. This is the anchor of our existence, especially in these turbulent times. We must work towards advancing our national interests in the area at the appropriate time.

We will continue to keep the peace with Egypt. This is in the common interest of both countries. We will work toward preventing a further deterioration in our relationship with Turkey. We did not choose this sequence of events. To the extent that the matter depends upon us, we shall act to lower tensions and do everything possible to restore relations.

We shall continue to work towards peace with the Palestinians. To this end, we must return as quickly as possible to the path of direct peace negotiations. Only in this manner will we be able to advance and achieve a peace agreement. Regarding this negotiation, I believe that many people today in our nation and around the world who see what is happening in our area will understand our justified stance in defending our security interests in any future agreement. 
I would like to thank again the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Minister of Defense, the security forces and above all our brave young men who were trapped for many long hours in the embassy. We worked together as a cohesive team in order to prevent a tragedy for the State of Israel and to return our men home peacefully.