Peace Treaty Troubles
With Turkish-Israel relations at a nadir, ties with Jordan practically on life support, the push for UN recognition of a Palestinian state, and the security threats stemming from Iran and its proxies, it’s no wonder that Jerusalem has been considering taking exceptional steps to preserve its cold peace with Cairo.
But tension along the 150-mile Israeli-Egyptian border remains high, after an August 18 incursion near Eilat claimed eight Israeli lives. Though Egyptian border guards spotted the terrorists, they did not intercept them. Later, in hot pursuit of the attackers, three Egyptian guards were killed, either by accidental IDF gunfire or when an explosive belt worn by one of the fleeing gunmen detonated. Three of the infiltrators turned out to have been Egyptian citizens. In response, the Cairo street erupted in renewed anti-Israel frenzy, with young men making competing claims over who scaled the Israeli embassy building and tore down its flag.
It is important to remember that the Sinai is in Egypt’s hands precisely because of the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, signed in Washington by Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat on March 26, 1979. Now, intelligence information shows that Gaza-based Palestinian Islamists plan to use the Sinai for making further cross-border attacks on Israel. Nevertheless, rather than take Cairo to task for allowing the cross-border incursion in the first place, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and President Shimon Peres have apologized for the loss of Egyptian life.
What does the peace treaty require of Egypt? In short, it obligates Egypt to secure Sinai with a limited troop presence while keeping it demilitarized. For the past 30 years, this has worked to Israel’s great benefit, not only neutralizing its southern border but conferring diplomatic and economic advantages as well. For example, 40 percent of the natural gas used by Israel is imported from Egypt.
In 2009, Palestinian Islamists and Bedouin gangs repeatedly attacked a pipeline supplying this natural gas to Israel (and Jordan). In response, Israel agreed to permit Egypt to move more troops into the Peninsula to contain these jihadi elements. Since the Mubarak regime was toppled, Israel has twice agreed to allow Cairo to deploy more troops—for a current total of 10,000 troops in the Peninsula, with about 4,000 stationed along the Israeli border. Still, unsurprisingly, the flow of ever more lethal weaponry making its way through Sinai to Hamas-controlled Gaza has been increasing, and a record 2,000 infiltrators (mostly illegal refugees) managed to cross the Egypt-Israel border last month. It is unclear whether this security vacuum is the result of weak policing in a difficult terrain or a persistent lack of will carried over from the Mubarak era.
Egyptians say they view the need to obtain Israeli approval for shifting troops into Sinai an affront to their national pride and their country’s sovereignty. Egypt’s Supreme Military Council has been pushing hard to amend the peace treaty, arguing that new security threats demand permanently lifting the ceiling on the number of troops allowed into the Peninsula. The treaty does contain a clause that allows security arrangements to be amended by mutual agreement—though both Cairo and Jerusalem agree that ad hoc solutions have been exhausted. Israel’s Haaretz newspaper supports official Egyptian demands to amend the treaty; Egypt’s Al Ahram said what Egyptians really want is to have it abrogated altogether. Indeed, leading Egyptian figures have repeatedly emphasized that the peace treaty is not “sacrosanct.”
Thus, in advance of anticipated presidential elections in Egypt this winter, Barak has been floating the idea of holding a strategic dialogue with Cairo. The goal would be to find ways to make the treaty more palatable to Egyptian voters indoctrinated against Israel by the venomous cant of their media. Barak hopes that the treaty can be salvaged by amending the demilitarization clauses—which probably would result in Israel losing its veto over how many Egyptian troops can be stationed in Sinai. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is opposed to changing the treaty but said that he would bring any proposed changes to the Cabinet.
Hosni Mubarak, while in power, did nothing to foster support for the peace treaty and occasionally diverted attention away from Egypt’s domestic woes by playing the anti-Israel card. Egypt’s de facto ruler, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, has followed a similar line. Still, if Tantawi or one of his henchmen continues to rule, the bare bones of the treaty are likely to be preserved, in return for continued U.S. military aid ($40 billion since the 1970’s). On the other hand, virtually all of Egypt’s declared presidential candidates from across the political spectrum have staked out positions that put into question the long-term viability of the treaty.
But modifying the treaty to appease popular anti-Israel sentiment could open a Pandora’s box of demands on Israel. If today’s limit on the number of soldiers is an “affront” to Egyptian sensibilities, who’s to say forbidding the Egyptian Air Force from holding maneuvers over Sinai won’t be the next “affront” to be overcome? The Jordan-Israel peace treaty is no less unpopular. Wouldn’t amending the treaty with Egypt put pressure on King Abdullah II to push for similar amends? Moreover, any viable Israeli deal with the Palestinian faction led by Abbas would require the demilitarization of the West Bank. What signal would backtracking on the demilitarization of Sinai send to the Palestinians?
If the treaty with Egypt must be gutted in order to save it, something may be terribly wrong with the underlying land-for-peace approach.
(Photo: Middle East Children’s Alliance)