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Israeli warships' passage through Suez Canal causes a stir

The mission prompts speculation that Israel sought to send a message about its military might to Iran and give the impression of close cooperation with Egypt against regional security threats.

July 24, 2009|Jeffrey Fleishman and Batsheva Sobelman | Sobelman is an assistant in The Times' Jerusalem Bureau. Special correspondent Amro Hassan in Cairo contributed to this report.

CAIRO AND JERUSALEM — There's no sneaking a warship through the Suez Canal, so it's best to sail through and remain coy.

Israel has done just that. At least two of its missile-class Saar 5 warships and a Dolphin submarine have sailed through the canal in recent weeks, prompting conjecture about Israel's intentions. Possible scenarios include the sending of a message to Iran about Israeli military might and giving the impression that Israel and Egypt, which controls the Suez, are closely cooperating against regional security threats.

The Israeli government has said little about why the vessels were on missions that took them through the Suez, but they come as Israel has grown insistent on stopping Iran's nuclear program. That fits in with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's attempts to link the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with agreements from Arab states to help Israel counter Iran.

The two warships -- the Eilat and the Hanit -- sailed through the Suez toward the Red Sea this month, reportedly to participate in maneuvers with U.S. forces and to prevent smuggled arms from reaching the Gaza Strip. The submarine, believed capable of carrying nuclear warheads, went through the canal in late June to take part in a naval drill.

Israeli analysts drew broader implications and suggested that Israel could use the canal to quickly reach the Persian Gulf and Iranian waters. Writing on the Ynet news website after the Dolphin deployment, Israeli defense expert Ron Ben-Yishai suggested that the mission "attests to the improvement in Israel's and Egypt's strategic relationship.

"The Obama administration should note with satisfaction the passage of an Israeli submarine through the Suez Canal and see it as proof that its efforts to bring regional cooperation to fend off the Iranian threat are beginning to bear fruit," he wrote.

Egypt didn't see it that way, at least not publicly. Cairo, which signed the Camp David accords and the Israel-Egypt peace treaty in the late 1970s, has been fending off Arab criticism for years that it is too close to U.S. and Israeli interests. But, like Israel, Egypt is wary of Iran's nuclear aspirations and has been angered by Tehran's influence with the Islamic militant groups Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Egypt and Iran have been attempting to repair relations, yet Cairo is far from trusting a government it regards as wanting to undermine its stature in the Middle East.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said any vessel not endangering his country may use the waterway that connects the Mediterranean and Red seas. He kept his comments clipped and made no mention of Egypt's relationship with Israel, which has been prickly since Israel's incursion into Gaza in January. Cairo has also criticized Netanyahu's conservative government as undermining the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Aboul Gheit's reticence, however, did not prevent expression of outrage by opposition political voices, saying that Cairo was too cozy with the Jewish state.

"How can Egyptian authorities allow something like this to happen at a time Israel proves every day that it violates the Camp David peace treaty?" Sayed Khalifa, a Muslim Brotherhood member of the Egyptian parliament, told reporters, referring to Israel's action in Gaza. "How can this treaty even continue to exist in the first place after all the violations Israel commits every day?"

Much of the hyperbole was generated in the Israeli news media while the country's military remained ambiguous about missions and tactics. That suited the Israeli government by keeping Tehran guessing. Iran's Press TV reported that "Tel Aviv takes a step closer to war with Tehran as two Israeli warships sail through the Suez Canal within cruise-missile range of Iran."

News of the voyages came about the time Vice President Joe Biden, on a trip to the Middle East, said Israel was free to protect itself if it felt threatened by Iran. The U.S. and Israel claim that Tehran's nuclear program is designed to build weapons, which Iran denies.

"Israel can determine for itself -- it's a sovereign nation -- what's in their interest and what they decide to do relative to Iran and anyone else," said Biden.

President Obama later clarified that his administration had not given its blessing for an Israeli attack on Iran and that U.S. officials emphasized the avoidance of major conflict in the Middle East.

All of this has left Egypt in the sensitive position of not wanting to appear to be aiding Israel while Aboul Gheit is seeking a degree of rapprochement with Tehran.

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