Burning sands – Whither Egypt?
By Amir Oren Haaretz
Until the breaching of the wall, Israel’s defense establishment assumed, according to internal documents, that Egypt “was dedicated to the peace with Israel, and views it as a vital strategic asset for preserving internal stability and its special relations with Washington. Only a profound change – a change of regime, or the much less likely possibility of a change in the outlook of the present regime – could turn it into a strategic threat again. In the event of a regional crisis, in the Palestinian or the Syrian-Lebanese arena, it’s likely that Egypt would choose to conduct a diplomatic crisis accompanied by military signals that do not violate the military addendum to the peace agreement.”
In the long term, especially looking ahead to the post-Mubarak era, the strengthening of Egypt with advanced Western weapons, in almost a mirror-image of the IDF, could make it “a possible primary military risk.” The Egyptian army is not concealing its efforts to develop offensive capabilities, to improve its emergency preparedness and to ready the Sinai for the possibility of a military confrontation.
The difference between this type of confrontation and one that is one grade below it – a serious but reversible Egyptian violation of the agreements on the demilitarization and reduction of forces in Sinai – depends on the existence of another factor that would stir up tension between the two countries. In May 1967, it was Syria’s fear of an Israeli attack. Now it could be the Palestinian terror passing through Sinai on its way to the Negev.
Israel has no satisfactory answer at hand. A fence has yet to be built. Egypt’s demand that it be permitted to increase the size of the forces stipulated in the security addendum is justified only in its less important aspect: They need reinforcements in order to repel a rioting mob at Rafah. Israel turned its head when the 750 Egyptian border police sent to replace the local officers were instead added to them, doubling their number. What the Egyptians mainly need along the Israeli border are radar systems and troop transport helicopters (Israel agreed to let them into the “reduced-forces zone”), as well as the systematic recruitment of human resources – agents from among the local Bedouin. Cairo has so neglected Sinai that the peninsula has come to resemble the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in Pakistan, which have eluded central control from Islamabad.
So as not to put the fragile Israeli-Egyptian agreement to the test, one option would be to amend a less problematic section, the one stipulating the size and authorities of the international force. This force has an American director, a Norwegian commander and an infantry brigade made up of three battalions and other auxiliary units from 11 countries. For 25 years, this force has been employed solely in a supervisory and reportorial capacity. It could also be assigned to seal the border, but it would be hard to find countries that would agree to contribute battalions to this, to kill and be killed in a confrontation with Palestinians. NATO’s experience in Afghanistan, both in terms of the size of the units and their rules of engagement, is not an encouraging precedent.
Israel could find itself in a serious dilemma, if the sometimes productive intelligence cooperation with Egypt is insufficient to stop terror cells that are about to cross the border. Restraint would endanger lives in Dimona and Be’er Sheva – in fact, throughout Israel. But the violation of Egyptian sovereignty, which has been ruled out as illegal – would create a crisis in Jerusalem-Cairo relations.
The emerging consequence of this situation is that the option that was most rejected in recent months – a ground assault in the Gaza Strip – will become the lesser of evils. The decision-makers in the government and the IDF – headed by those whose shortsighted policy led to the army’s withdrawal from the Philadelphi corridor, brought Hamas to power and laid the groundwork for the breach of the Palestinian-Egyptian border – will be pushed into returning the IDF to the Qassam launch sites in the northern Strip and encircling the dozen or so kilometers between Kerem Shalom and the sea in order to trap the terror activists and recover their weapons in meticulous house-to-house searches. If they decide against reoccupying the entire Strip, they may make do with the Rafah and Khan Yunis area, up to the Gaza river. In that case, about 700,000 Gazans would be cut off from their livelihood in the north. This would be bad, very bad. Only an end to the peace with Egypt, in the event that this scenario does not take place, would be worse.