Since the horrific October 7 terrorist attacks, audiences around the world have been closely following the Israel-Hamas war. People want to learn more about the efforts to negotiate the release of the Israeli hostages; the attempts to broker a cease-fire; and the steps countries and international organizations have taken to alleviate the Gaza Strip’s dire humanitarian situation. There is also an interest in analyzing how the conflict might run its course, when and how it might end, and how it could potentially ignite a wider regional war between Israel and Iran’s proxies.

Because these issues have dominated the headlines on the conflict, relatively little attention has been given to the rising tensions between Egypt and Israel. Recently, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Israel would continue its monthslong war against Hamas and would do so by proceeding with a major military operation in Rafah, the southernmost tip of Gaza abutting the Egyptian border. This decision more than any other Israeli action has the potential to cross Cairo’s red lines and rupture the delicate Egyptian-Israeli relationship.

A Rafah operation would, in our view, damage rather than enhance Israel’s security in the short term and long term because it would alienate one of Israel’s oldest partners in the Arab world. Such an unwelcome outcome might exceed any sort of tactical or operational benefits from an incursion into Rafah and, to draw from the insight of Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz, could lead Israel to exceed its culminating point of victory.

From Rivals to Strategic Partners

On November 19, 1977, Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat traveled to Israel and visited the contested city of Jerusalem. His bold gesture changed the diplomatic landscape and brought about intensive peace negotiations that would help end the decades-long Egyptian-Israeli rivalry. In September 1978 and March 1979, President Jimmy Carter successfully mediated the Camp David Accords and the resulting Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty, respectively. Today’s crisis in Egyptian-Israeli relations is occurring against the backdrop of the forty-fifth anniversary of the signing of the latter agreement.

This landmark settlement established a long-lasting peace and normalized relations between two countries that had fought one another four times since Israel’s founding in 1948. This agreement forever changed the security architecture of the region because Egypt, the most powerful Arab state, officially aligned itself with the United States and Israel and helped balance not just against the Soviet Union and its clients (until the end of the Cold War) but also against extremist groups and a revisionist Iran (after the 1979 Islamic Revolution). While the Soviet bloc is long gone, the regional realignment that took place in 1979 holds until this day.

Most importantly, once Egypt made peace with Israel, it essentially foreclosed future Arab-Israeli wars because other Arab states such as Syria were incapable of fighting Israel on their own. In an otherwise tumultuous Middle East, the Egyptian-Israeli peace has served as a cornerstone of regional stability and has endured despite Sadat’s assassination (in 1981), Israel’s invasion of Lebanon (in 1982), and Hosni Mubarak’s ouster as Egyptian president (in 2011).

Today, the diplomatic, intelligence, and security cooperation that was forged between Egypt and Israel is being seriously tested by the Israel-Hamas conflict, especially Netanyahu’s proposed operation in Rafah. The Prime Minister argues that the Israel Defense Forces must enter this city to root out Hamas fighters; to locate and rescue hostages; and finally, to secure Gaza’s southern border with Egypt.

Understanding Egypt’s Opposition to Israel’s Rafah Operation

Egypt, like the United States and much of the rest of the world, is strongly opposed to an Israeli operation in Rafah, which currently houses 1.4 million Palestinians displaced from other parts of the enclave. Aside from the humanitarian motives underlying Egypt’s position, its officials believe that Egypt’s security and national interests as well as its prestige and reputation would be irreversibly harmed should Netanyahu follow through with the plan. Egypt’s foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, has consistently warned that “the occurrence of such a scenario would affect Egyptian national security, and lead to irreparable damage to peace and security in the Middle East.” How?

Netanyahu’s public statements and postwar plan for Gaza make it clear that Israel would like to reestablish control of the Palestinian side of not only the Rafah border crossing but also of the Philadelphi corridor. The latter is a narrow buffer zone patrolled solely by Egypt after Hamas expelled the Palestinian Authority from Gaza in 2007. It runs the length of the Gaza-Egyptian border from the Mediterranean all the way to the Kerem Shalom crossing, the point at which the borders of Egypt, Israel, and Gaza meet. As part of its disengagement from Gaza, Israel withdrew from its side of the corridor in 2005 but, in doing so, agreed to an Egyptian presence of 750 border guards (with supporting aerial and naval personnel) to prevent overland and underground smuggling and infiltration from the Sinai into the enclave.

Following the October 7 terrorist attacks, Netanyahu has steadfastly maintained that Israel must fully secure, or “close,” Gaza’s southern border. While stopping the flow of terrorists and weapons is critical in demilitarizing Gaza, Netanyahu’s threat to do so unilaterally suggests that Egypt has done very little on this front and bears some responsibility for Hamas’s rearmament and increased capabilities. This critique, though to some extent valid, overshadows the steps Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has taken to combat smuggling, including building layers of barriers and fences and approving the flooding of Hamas tunnels—a tactic to destroy subterranean structures presently being adopted by the Israelis.

It is well known that there is absolutely no love lost between Egypt and Hamas, a terrorist organization that shares an Islamist ideology with the Muslim Brotherhood. In 2013, Sisi led a coup and ousted democratically elected President Mohammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. Because Hamas’s ideological roots can be traced back to the Muslim Brotherhood, Egyptian officials view it as a threat and accordingly, have helped Israel maintain its land, air, and sea blockade of Gaza. Despite Egypt’s close cooperation with Israel, Netanyahu’s government is proposing to unilaterally change the status quo arrangements and this, in turn, is seen as an affront by Cairo. Of greater concern are Netanyahu’s threats to retake the Philadelphi corridor because it would suggest that Israel intends to reoccupy the Gaza Strip, or at least strategic parts of it, for some time.

Additionally, the Egyptians are worried about the fate of the Palestinians because they have nowhere safe to go should Israeli forces enter Rafah. The Sinai is just next door, but Egypt is strongly opposed to accepting Palestinian refugees and Sisi has publicly stated that the displacement of Palestinians (from Gaza) crosses a red line. Egypt’s foreign minister recently said much the same thing in an interview with the PBS Newshour. Why? Firstly, there are legitimate concerns over suddenly accepting such a massive influx of people because Hamas militants could easily use civilians to mask their entry into Egypt. They could thereafter launch terrorist attacks against Egyptian targets and this spillover is something Cairo desperately wants to avoid. Egypt is already struggling with an insurgency against ISIS-inspired groups in the Sinai and so, does not want to unknowingly welcome individuals connected to other militant organizations.

Secondly, Hamas might use Egyptian territory as a staging ground from which to launch terrorist attacks against Israel or Israeli forces in Gaza. Following such an incident, Israel might retaliate against targets on Egyptian soil, as had happened from 1949 to 1967 when Egypt administered Gaza. Whenever the Egyptians failed to prevent the infiltration of Palestinian militants, Israel during those years launched attacks to coerce them to better police their borders. Today, such attacks would not just inflame regional tensions but also violate the letter and spirit of the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty.

This, in turn, would generate an international crisis and would invite American intervention because the United States, under the administration of President Jimmy Carter, essentially became the guarantor of the peace agreement. As reflected in exchanged letters between Carter and Sadat as well as between Carter and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, the United States, “in the event of an actual or threatened violation of the Treaty of Peace . . . will take such other action as it may deem appropriate and helpful to achieve compliance with the Treaty.” Today, the administration of President Joe Biden, which is already managing flashpoints from Europe to Asia, is diplomatically stretched thin and might not have the time and resources to manage another crisis in the Middle East, especially as it is trying to make a strategic pivot to Asia.

Thirdly, the Egyptian people are sympathetic to the Palestinians’ plight and so, for domestic political purposes, Sisi cannot make it easier for Israel to proceed with its operation. In accepting Palestinian refugees, Egypt would be perceived as a facilitator, if not enabler, of their further displacement. Moreover, Egyptian officials fear that the Rafah operation might be a second nakba, or catastrophe, and would lead to the Palestinians’ expulsion from Gaza. This not only would make it more difficult to resolve the Palestinian question but would make it harder to create a future Palestinian state and, to use Egyptian officials’ terms, would result in the “liquidation of the Palestinian issue.” Despite Netanyahu’s assurances that Israel will not permanently displace Gazans, statements to the contrary from his extreme right-wing ministers are fueling suspicions. Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich have called for the Palestinians’ “voluntary migration” and for Israel’s resettlement of the Gaza Strip. Such inflammatory remarks generate tension between Israel and Egypt—and also between Israel and many of its international backers, including the United States.

A Military Victory May Create a Bigger Political Problem

In response to Netanyahu’s proposal to launch a military operation in Rafah, Egyptian officials have privately threatened to take diplomatic actions against Israel, reportedly warning that their country might suspend the historic peace treaty between the two neighbors. Such threats were later dismissed by Egypt’s foreign minister, but the fact that such a clarification was deemed necessary highlights the degree to which Egyptian-Israeli relations have reached a nadir. While it is highly unlikely that Cairo would ever abrogate the treaty altogether, there are indeed a myriad of other actions that it could take to gently pressure Israel and its strongest supporter, the United States, to account for its concerns. So far, Egypt has considered recalling its ambassador to Israel, and has stopped sharing images with Israel from its observation posts along the Gaza Strip.

Israel presently relies on Egypt to help mediate an agreement with Hamas to secure the release of its remaining hostages and to help it conclude a cease-fire. At the same time, Netanyahu is threatening to take the very actions that Cairo vehemently opposes. If Egypt’s help is needed, then why antagonize the very state whom you depend on for mediation and whose support you will need to craft a postwar settlement?

In Israel’s fight against terrorism, Netanyahu risks sacrificing his country’s strategic interests by alienating Israel’s oldest partner in the Arab world. It is precisely during such a critical time that he needs the help of neighbors to not only terminate the war and reach a settlement but to successfully implement a plan for Gaza that Arab states such as Egypt just might be able to accept, if not support. In the long term, dismissing or ignoring Egyptian concerns will do more harm than good for Israel’s national security.

Indeed, carefully contemplating these very likely negative outcomes recalls a long-standing strategic concept. The Prussian war theorist Carl von Clausewitz defined the so-called culminating point of victory as the line beyond which a military advance becomes politically counterproductive. Carried away by the offensive force, a belligerent keeps pressing his advance beyond a certain point, without realizing that every additional step jeopardizes the gains, and the possibilities for achieving peace radically diminish. The culminating point of victory is the threshold when the military advantages peak and then rapidly turn into disadvantages. As Clausewitz wrote in On War (Book VII, Ch. 22), “If one were to go beyond that point, it would not merely be a useless effort which could not add to success. It would in fact be a damaging one, which would lead to a reaction; and experience goes to show that such reactions usually have completely disproportionate effects.”

General Douglas MacArthur’s advance toward the Yalu River in 1951, which brought China directly into the Korean War, is considered the classic example of the strategic overreach that can occur when surpassing Clausewitz’s culminating point of victory. The UN forces’ gains in pursuing the North Korean army blinded MacArthur and led him to ignore warnings that China could not tolerate Western troops so close to its borders. The military offensive became meaningless and, in fact, counterproductive because it led to the Chinese intervention. The conflict hit a new and dangerous level of escalation that no one wanted. The path toward peace became much costlier and harder to achieve. Similar to MacArthur’s decision, Netanyahu’s proposed Rafah operation may soon become another blunder.

While it is unforeseeable that Israel and Egypt would fight one another in a large-scale engagement, the rising tensions coupled with their growing mistrust make potential border incidents or skirmishes more likely due to accidents and miscalculations. If Egypt amends or suspends the peace treaty, then Israel would likely have to post additional military forces along the entire length of its international border with Egypt. Though this is just a safeguard, it would impose greater financial costs on Israel and overextend the Israel Defense Forces, which are not only operating extensively in Gaza but are also countering threats in the north of the country (near Lebanon) and the West Bank. Some would argue that Egyptian-Israeli relations were never marked by deep trust and cooperation, but as we have shown, Israel may find the alternative even worse.

Until now, Israel’s actions in Gaza have been publicly criticized and observed internationally with a mix of fear and alarm, but the fragile balance in the Middle East still holds. That is not a small thing in this region. It is true that the proposed operation could help Israel tactically and operationally dismantle, or at least weaken, Hamas in Gaza, but the organization operates beyond the enclave. Its members actively recruit in the West Bank, its leading officials reside in neighboring Arab countries, its militants smuggle people and weapons from the Sinai, and its organization receives aid and assistance from private donors and from external patrons such as Iran and Qatar. To deal with the transnational dimension of terrorism, Israel needs the cooperation of regional partners like Egypt and should not take its help for granted.

When applying violence, Clausewitz advised strategists and statesmen to carefully consider their political objectives and ponder what better peace they wish to achieve at the end. As he emphasized when discussing the culminating point of victory, “Superior strength is not the end but only the means.” What would military success mean for Israel in Rafah if the political outcome is to permanently distance Egypt and render its crucial long-term cooperation in securing the southern border difficult, if not impossible? If Israel wishes lasting security, it needs a productive partnership with Egypt. The other possibility is an endless cycle of violence and, most likely, further interventions in Gaza. Such a nightmarish scenario would destabilize the Middle East for decades to come.

Israel would be well served by not just maintaining but strengthening its partnerships with Egypt and other Arab states. If it really wishes to defeat Hamas in Gaza and, more broadly, in the region, a coalition of partners offers a much more sustainable means of doing so.

Shahin Berenji is an assistant professor in the Strategy and Policy Department at the US Naval War College. He studies foreign policy decision-making and diplomacy and has a specialization in the Cold War and regional expertise in the Middle East. His research has been published in such journals as International Security and Security Studies.

Vanya Eftimova Bellinger is an assistant professor in the Strategy and Policy Department at the US Naval War College. She is the author of Marie von Clausewitz: The Woman behind the Making of On War. Her research focuses on classical military thought and its application to current strategic dilemmas.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Departments of the Army or Navy, or Department of Defense.

Image credit: Israel Defense Forces