Egypt’s behavior in Sinai and along the Philadelphi route, which enables the large-scale arming of terror organizations, requires a reexamination of Israeli policy. Many people have become convinced in recent months that Egypt intends to allow the Israelis and the Palestinians to bleed together. These suspicions began to crop up among policymakers in Washington by 2000, after the failure of the Camp David summit and the outbreak of the second intifada.
We should recall that at that same summit, then-prime minister Ehud Barak prepared a “strategic surprise”: his proposal to divide Jerusalem, including the Old City, in order to stun Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat and motivate him to sign a peace agreement. Barak believed Arafat would find it difficult to resist the temptation of a historic achievement – a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem – and would sign to end the conflict.
However, the voice of the opposition arose, and it wasn’t coming from just the “resistance front.” Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak hastened to warn on television that Arafat did not have the power to decide on Jerusalem, because the Old City belonged to all Arabs and Muslims, and dividing it would constitute betrayal. Mubarak’s intervention in these critical moments led to a rare public complaint by then-U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright about his “contribution” to the peace process.
To this we must add Egypt’s strange behavior regarding the peace process between Israel and Jordan. The Egyptians complained for years about their isolation in the Arab world due to their peace agreement with Israel. That was also the explanation given for Mubarak’s refusal to visit Israel and for the cold peace, which he promised would warm when more countries joined the circle. So what was Egypt’s attitude to the political process with Jordan? It turns out Egypt was so eager to emerge from its isolation that it applied tremendous pressure on the late King Hussein to keep him from signing an agreement with Israel. Egypt did not even send proper representation to the signing ceremony in the Arava; Mubarak, who was invited, preferred to remain in Cairo.
The same pattern of behavior was also seen when Yitzhak Rabin sought to achieve full diplomatic relations with Qatar and Morocco. To Rabin’s disappointment, Egypt managed to torpedo agreements with these countries at the last moment. Of course one can find ad hoc explanations for Egypt’s behavior in each and every case, but looking at the complete picture, one sees an Egyptian strategy that is not in tandem with its declared policy of promoting regional peace.
Increased arms flow
What is Egypt’s real attitude toward the Palestinian Authority and the terror organizations in the territories? Most of the weapons and ammunition that enter Gaza pass through Egyptian territory. It is a convention that any country that does not do everything in its power to prevent arms from being smuggled to terror organizations is considered a silent supporter of terror.
Smuggling from Egypt is steadily increasing. The Shin Bet security services reports that every year, more than 20,000 rifles, millions of bullets, hundreds of RPG anti-tank missiles, tons of regulation explosive materials and additional equipment that could arm several infantry divisions pass through Egypt. For the sake of comparison, Jordan is much more determined in its anti-smuggling activity, and the results correspond to the effort.
As opposed to the prevailing impression, in order to stop the smuggling, Egypt does not need to go to battle in the tunnels under the Philadelphi route. The reality is much easier to implement: It must deploy checkpoints on the few highways and dirt roads leading toward Rafah, and intercept the convoys of weapons and ammunitions. Egypt also should catch and jail the chief smugglers in El Arish and Cairo, thus breaking up the smuggling networks like the Jordanians did.
And, of course, there is the diplomatic sphere. When Hamas political leader Khaled Meshal and his friends are repeatedly invited to meetings with Egyptian ministers in Cairo, this constitutes a type of vital diplomatic backing for Hamas vis-a-vis not only Israel, but Fatah and PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas as well. The same was true about two years ago, when the Egyptians tried to achieve a hudna (cease-fire). They proposed that in exchange for a temporary cease-fire, a historic guarantee would be given not to disarm Hamas or bring it down by force.
The clandestine Egyptian protection of Hamas began during Arafat’s time. In April 1996, before the elections between Shimon Peres and Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. president Bill Clinton pressured Arafat to fight terror. That was the only time Arafat ordered his interior minister Nasser Yousef to use force against Hamas activists in Gaza, which led to many arrests, a number of deaths and the closing of mosques. The Egyptians made sure to say two things on this issue: The first, which was meant for Clinton’s ears, was that “Arafat must act to stop the terror attacks”; the second, which was meant for Arafat and Abbas, was, “The Palestinians must avoid a civil war.”
This phenomenon is not restricted to Israel. Egypt’s behavior does not deviate from prevailing regional norms: For years, Syria has been encouraging Hezbollah and other organizations to terrorize Lebanon, the Kurdish PKK to act against Turkey, and internal terror in Jordan and Iraq; likewise, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq encouraged Sunni terror in Syria, Palestinian terror in Jordan and communist and Kurdish terror in Iran.
It would seem that the counter-argument of many commentators in the intelligence community and the media – that Egypt cannot support Hamas because it is afraid of Islamic terror at home – is groundless. History has shown that it is possible to repress the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt while meanwhile encouraging their brothers in Palestine, just as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq cruelly persecuted its Kurds while arming those in Iran, and vice versa. Middle Eastern countries tend to believe (justly) that terror or subversion among their neighbors has no direct effect on their own territory.
So why does Egypt behave as it does? Apparently its policy toward Hamas has several goals. The first and clearest is exhausting and weakening Israel over the years. Egypt’s failure to prevent the massive arming of the Palestinians over the past year is designed to facilitate the establishment of an arrangement in Gaza similar to that with Hezbollah in Lebanon, which is designed to make things difficult for Israel in the case of a regional conflagration.
Another hoped-for result is the undoing of eastern Sinai’s demilitarization. The Egyptians believe that intensified smuggling and the resulting deterioration will demonstrate the importance of Egyptian military control in eastern Sinai. The demands to change the peace agreements are based on this thinking. There already has been limited rearmament along the Philadelphi route.
Another topic that should be discussed is Egypt’s military buildup. Egypt has no existential threats nor active border conflicts. Nevertheless, for years Egypt has been acquiring, thanks in part to American assistance, impressive conventional military superiority over the other Arab and African countries.
The usual intelligence and media explanations are that Egypt still feels threatened by Israel. That is surprising. It is clear that since Israel relinquished the entire Sinai Peninsula, including its rich oil fields, for the sake of peace and stability, it has no intention to fight for that same territory again. Nevertheless, Egypt, a poor country, continues to invest billions of dollars annually in building up its military might. Now, after 25 years, it has achieved a quantitative balance with Israel in some areas, and in other areas has even left Israel far behind. The Egyptian Air Force has roughly the same number of modern warplanes – most of them American F-16s – as the Israel Air Force, whereas Egypt has far more Western tanks, artillery, anti-aircraft batteries and warships than the Israel Defense Forces has.
Since the signing of the peace agreement, Egypt has received about $40 billion in U.S. military assistance. It’s true Israel has received more, but as opposed to its southern neighbor, Israel cannot channel all its resources into fortifying itself against Egypt. It meanwhile had to fortify itself against Syria and Iraq, the Palestinians and Hezbollah in the north, and Palestinian terror in the heart of the country.
Another worrisome development is related to military maneuvers. Since 1996, about three years after the Oslo process began, most of Egypt’s military maneuvers have simulated war against Israel. For the first time during that period, the Egyptian army’s annual exercise – the Bader combined forces exercise – received a subheading explicitly naming the opposing force as “a small nation to the country’s northeast” (I have since then wondered whether Egypt has something against Lebanon).
Education and incitement
Finally, it is impossible not to mention the anti-Israel education and the harsh incitement in the media. About 30 years after Anwar Sadat visited Israel, Egyptian students are still learning that Israel is the source of evil in the region. Most textbook maps label the area east of Egypt not as “Israel” but as “Palestine.” The Egyptian media also frequently denies Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. And of course there is anti-Semitic incitement as well.
About two years ago, at the conclusion of the Sharm el-Sheikh summit, the presidents of the U.S. and Egypt held a press conference on the Sinai coast. Bush spoke about the obligation of Arab countries to end the incitement against Israel, the West and the Jewish people.
In the direct broadcasts Mubarak was seen nodding his head in agreement, but Egyptian citizens saw something else, because at the same time Egyptian national television was broadcasting another installment of a television series based on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which described the Jews as Satanic powers of darkness trying to destroy the world.
Twenty-five years ago we gave up Sinai for a peace agreement with Egypt. If Egypt has all along been making it difficult to expand the circle of peace with moderate Arab countries, if it ignores arms smuggling to terror organizations in Gaza, if it provides camouflaged diplomatic support to Hamas, if it educates the younger generation to hate Israel, and if it invests in a huge military buildup geared entirely to the possibility of a conflict with Israel, this is not the peace we expected.
Dr. Steinitz is a Likud MK and the chair of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/795822.html