“Under what conditions would you reconsider peace with Israel?” read the title of Saturday’s article in Al Masry Al Youm, one of Egypt’s most widely read publications. Interviewing the majority of Egypt’s presidential candidates, the piece provided the most up to date collection of candidates’ views on Camp David and Israel. The results?
According to the interviews, Egypt’s major presidential candidates seem willing to keep the peace with Israel, but are expressing concern over Egypt’s ability to exercise sovereignty in the Sinai. Leftist candidate Hesham al Bastawisi writes that “Egypt must restore its full rights over the Sinai,” while another liberal and socialist candidate, Abu-Ezz el-Hariri, echoed this sentiment, saying that “[Egypt has the right to] have the presence of its army at any point within its borders,” and that he would “reconsider any treaty that prejudices Egyptian sovereignty within its own territory.”
During the Egyptian presidential season, most candidates have focused on issues of Egyptian sovereignty, but have shied away from directly making predictions about the future of Israeli-Egyptian relations.
Running against this trend is leading secular candidate Amr Moussa, who recently said, “Camp David is dead and buried.” Ironically, it is the left, and not the Islamist candidates, who are playing the “Sinai card” to appear tougher on Israel. The remnants of the old foreign policy establishment who were once looked to by Israel to “maintain stability,” are actually the most aggressive advocates for reconsidering the treaty.
Given that Israelis are unable to predict the future of Egyptian policy, there has been an escalation in Israeli rhetoric as well, including last week’s statement by ex-defense minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer that “we must be prepared for a confrontation with Egypt.” But those who predict an impeding doomsday scenario are grossly over-inflating the danger.
What lurks behind the recent rocket attacks, cross-border raids, and pipeline blasts is a genuine flaw in the Camp David Accords — the inability of Egypt to control its own unstable territory.
To cut through this inflammatory rhetoric, I spoke to Professor Robert Springborg, an expert on the Egyptian military and professor of national security studies at the Naval Postgraduate School. His recommendations were encouraging. According to Springborg, allowing increased Egyptian sovereignty would benefit both parties and even “lead to greater confidence in the relationship.” He explained:
“…effective border patrol requires more than the few thousand troops presently there, in part because it necessitates broader control to prevent smuggling. One idea is to allow Egypt to significantly increase air surveillance, especially by helicopters, of which it lacks sufficient numbers.”
Springborg is not the only specialist advocating for an increase in the Egyptian military presence in the Sinai. Another expert, Safwat Zayaat, has argued that Egypt would require two battalions of 12,000-20,000 men to effectively safeguard the Sinai.
Still, what is important about Springborg’s comments is not only the substance of the recommendations, but, more importantly, their implications for Israel.
“The Egyptians do not need heavy armor or artillery in the Sinai,” says Springborg, “but they do require more aircraft and troops. A reasonable increase of these capacities poses no threat to Israel.”
Does this mean that the forces needed to secure Israel’s southern border can come entirely from a foreign army, and will in no way threaten Israel? It almost seems too good to be true.
But of course, the largest obstacle is not strategic, but psychological. Israel fears rethinking, let alone re-opening, the 1979 peace treaty, because of the dominant Israeli narrative that views concessions to Arab countries as slippery slopes. In the context of the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement however, this is simply not the case.
While renegotiating such a fragile treaty seems fraught with peril, luckily, the treaty itself contains the elasticity to accommodate the changes. The 1979 agreement has a built-in amendment that allows for changes to “security arrangements” as long as “both parties agree,” without affecting any other prior stipulations.
Even with the feasibility of securing a safer Sinai, alarmists are quick to blame the security situation on Egyptian incompetence and even underlying Palestinian sympathies. Following the rocket attack on Eilat in April, columnist Ron Ben-Yeshai wrote, “By now it’s clear that the Egyptians won’t be doing the job for us.”
Beyond ignoring the limitations of the Egyptian army under Camp David, Egypt’s willingness to cooperate with Israel on security in the Sinai can hardly be questioned. In 2009, the Egyptian military built an “impenetrable” 10-meter underground wall at Rafah amid massive resistance from its own population. Add this to its notorious reputation for military roundups of accused Bedouin in the Sinai, and numerous requests for extra troop allotments in the region, and an entirely new picture emerges.
These are hardly the actions of a government that doesn’t want to safeguard the Sinai.
As the fate of the next Egyptian government remain uncertain, ensuring that the powder-keg Sinai region remains calm is essential to prevent future conflict.
Israeli policymakers would be well advised to dial back the rhetoric and see regime change as a unique opportunity, one that can provide a short window to improve security on both sides of the border at no risk to Israel.