In army staff colleges all over the world, the Egyptian-Israeli military agreement in the Sinai Peninsula is taught as the way two veteran belligerents that are tired of war but still don’t trust each other can best manage their cold peace. The solution is simple, if not ideal: They demilitarize the large, empty desert that separates their population centers.
When you travel the long, narrow road along the Negev-Sinai boundary that links Kerem Shalom on the Israel-Egypt-Gaza border confluence in the north with Eilat in the south, you see a border fence 3 feet high. Beyond it, for approximately 130 miles west toward the Suez Canal, there are almost no Egyptian soldiers. Military incidents are rare here. Almost the only unauthorized people crossing the border are hash smugglers and young Moldavian women transported from Egypt into Israel by Russian and Bedouin gangs that exploit them as prostitutes in the fleshpots of Tel Aviv.
The Sinai demilitarization arrangements represent Israel’s best answer to its oldest military nightmare. Ever since the Egyptian army tried in 1948 to fight its way through the southern coastal area north to Tel Aviv, Israel’s main focus in every postwar negotiation — after 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973 — and ultimately in the 1977-79 peace talks was to institutionalize ways to keep the Egyptian army as far away as possible.
Egypt, too, likes to maintain a healthy distance between its army and the Israeli army. In 25 years of peace, the Egyptians have never cast doubt on the wisdom of force separation through demilitarization.
Nor has Egypt ever offered its services — or been solicited by Israel, the Palestinians or the United States — as a potential caretaker for Gaza, which it occupied between 1948 and 1967. In the Egyptian-Israeli peace talks of the late 1970s, Menachem Begin refused to return Gaza to Egypt because he considered it part of Greater Israel; for his part, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat would never have taken it anyway, because he considered it part of Palestine and was only interested in “sacred Egyptian territory.”
This historical background explains why the news of a growing Egyptian military role in the projected disengagement from Gaza is so extraordinary. True, the Egyptians are only sending a small number of military trainers and senior advisers. But they are sending them to both Gaza and the West Bank. True, they will only send a modest contingent of high-quality troops to their side of the Gaza border, where Palestinians smuggle arms through tunnels. But those troops will, if necessary, clash with Palestinian militants, and Egyptian sources promise they will bulldoze homes on their side of the border to reveal the tunnels — without any of the human-rights squeamishness that characterizes Israel’s efforts.
If indeed the Egyptians follow through on their new commitments, the potential for military friction of some sort between Egypt and Israel — such as Egyptians being caught in Israeli-Palestinian crossfire — will increase for the first time in more than two decades. So, too, will Egyptian diplomatic involvement in the Palestinian issue.
To be sure, the Egyptians hope to use the influence projected by their enhanced presence to moderate the behavior of Palestinian militants. But they also presumably will be better positioned to project pressure on Israel, both directly and via Washington, regarding peace process issues.
Israel’s readiness to countenance such an active Egyptian role, with all the risks and hopes it entails, constitutes an admission of its own inability to restore order in the territories. The Palestinian Authority’s willingness to work with the Egyptians reflects its own abject failure.
Noticeably, no one bothered to ask King Abdullah of Jordan, who has an existential interest in what happens in the West Bank and who recently extracted a letter from President Bush that restores the appearance of an even-handed American approach. Jordan’s role is happily belittled by the Egyptians, who are reminding the Hashemites of the real pecking order in the Arab world by virtue of the power they are projecting deep into Palestine.
Despite doubts among some Israeli intelligence analysts regarding Egypt’s ultimate military intentions toward Israel, the Sharon government has encouraged the Egyptians to enter the fray. Perhaps the best indication that the traditional Israeli military approach toward Egypt is anachronistic is Prime Minister Sharon’s very decision to remove the Katif bloc of settlements in Gaza — which were put in place originally to hinder another Egyptian military thrust toward Tel Aviv.
Why is Egypt, normally a calculating and cautious actor, getting involved in this new Palestinian adventure? The explanation appears to lie in the bigger picture of the post-September 11 Middle East. On the one hand, the potential for anarchy in Gaza projected by an Israeli pullout poses the prospect of a Hamas-ruled Gaza. Hamas is an offshoot of the Egyptian fundamentalist group Muslim Brotherhood, and radical Islam is the biggest threat to President Hosni Mubarak’s rule. Egypt does not want a Hamas mini-republic on its border.
On the other, Mubarak is hard pressed to deal with American pressures for reform in the areas of democracy and human rights. It was no coincidence that he skipped last week’s G8 summit in Sea Island, Georgia. He hopes, with some foundation, that a contribution to regional stability in Palestine will earn him alternative credits with Washington.
Besides, the Egyptians are making every effort to ensure this does not become an adventure. Their preconditions include demands that both Israelis and Palestinians declare and observe a ceasefire; that Yasser Arafat finally agree to cede authority over Palestinian security forces, whereby Egypt will radically reorganize their command structure and turn them over to more responsible and less corrupt Palestinians; and that Israel allow Arafat freedom of movement and eventually withdraw from the narrow strip between Egypt and Gaza known as the Philadelphi Road.
The cynics on both sides argue that Arafat and Sharon each hope the other will torpedo the Egyptian project. Both know how.
Yossi Alpher, a former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies and former senior adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak, is co-editor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org.