One of the major stumbling blocks during the peace negotiations between Israel and Egypt from 1977 to 1979 - aside from the question of linking Israeli-Egyptian peace to a solution of the Palestinian problem - was the limitation on Egyptian sovereignty in the Sinai Peninsula after Israel withdrew. Israeli security concerns were addressed via a gradual demilitarization, a dilution of forces and an international security force.
But the terror attack north of Eilat a week and a half ago demonstrated what was already known for a while: Israel's limitations on the Egyptian military presence in the Sinai could also be to Israel's detriment.
The arid peninsula had never been of much interest to Cairo; at best it was important for the regime to secure the tourist sites on the coast, an important source of income. This is also why they are terror targets.
The Egyptian government was even less interested in what happened between the Israelis and the Palestinians in Gaza. Fearing an escalation, former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was inclined to ignore the treaty's limitations on Israel (mainly for symbolic reciprocity ), and allowed the Israel Defense Forces to deploy an armored force along the Philadelphi route. This permit became meaningless when the Sharon government withdrew from Gaza and abandoned it to the mercy of Hamas.
Egypt's desire to send more forces into the Sinai to deal with the growing - and mutual - threat posed by the Bedouin living there, global jihad organizations and Palestinians coming from Gaza has met with Israeli hesitation. The fear of setting a precedent - both regarding a change in the peace treaty's security appendix and possible events while an augmented force is deployed - is understandable.
But to make a decision, one must ask why the limits were set on the Egyptian forces. These restrictions were meant to prevent the threat of invasion by Egyptian armor, backed by fighter jets and surface-to-air missiles. Such a threat is far from being realized at present.
The mutual threat against which the Egyptian infantry plans to act endangers Israel and Egyptian-Israeli peace. A string of terror attacks and retaliations is liable to deteriorate into a clash between the two countries' armies. On balance, it's preferable to allow a limited, lightly armed Egyptian force into the Sinai now to avoid a confrontation with a much larger, heavily armed force in a battle that could be sparked by an escalation on the border.
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