The buckle in the Egyptian security belt
In a situation in which Israel prefers not to coordinate the withdrawal from Gaza with the Palestinians or present a sustainable political plan, reliance on Egypt, both as a mediator and guardian of the border, is the best thing it can get.
The disappointment was slight - it was anticipated when Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom visited Cairo last week what he would hear: Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak made it clear that Egypt will not send "peacekeeping" forces into the Gaza Strip should Israel exit.
And, really, what did Shalom and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon expect of Mubarak? That he would make the same mistake as Israel and send in a foreign army into territory that is not his? Egypt, Mubarak said, is ready to do what every sovereign state must do: guard its borders. If Israel evacuates the Philadelphi route and leaves Rafah, it will be an Egyptian interest - which will also serve Israel - for the border between Gaza and Egypt to remain sealed as far as possible. Egypt has no need of two-way traffic there - not by drug smugglers, not by arms dealers and not by terrorists who will, it's true, be able to arm the organizations in Gaza but also reach Cairo." Egypt is adept at guarding its borders with Sudan and Libya, he said, and will deal likewise with "the Palestine-Egypt border."
Egypt's position is not new. Two years ago, when the Jordanian-Egyptian peace initiative was formulated, Israel was told that the two countries were willing to give Israel a security belt and add other Arab states to it. Israel scoffed at this proposal and announced that it would guard its borders by itself.
Egypt was then perceived as a hostile state. Sharon, before he was elected prime minister, saw fit to declare publicly that "Mubarak can relax because he, Sharon, does not intend to call him," and a few months ago Sharon threatened Jordan's King Abdullah II when he said that "Jordan will lose a lot if it acts against us."
Jordan had then launched a campaign against the building of the separation fence, and Sharon was incensed. Israel didn't help Egypt when it held four rounds of talks with the Palestinian organizations in order to achieve the famous hudna (cease-fire); Israel viewed Egypt as a rival when talks between Israel and the Palestinians were still being conducted; and Israel was suspicious of the talks held by the chief of Egyptian intelligence, General Omar Suleiman, with the Palestinians. Suddenly, Israel is pinning a citation on the lapel of Mubarak's suit and noting the "positive change" in Egypt's approach vis-�-vis Israel.
"It is not Egypt that has changed its attitude, but Israel that is now courting Egypt," a senior Egyptian official said at the weekend. "Throughout the period, Egypt displayed readiness and a desire to advance the political process, but there was no partner on the Israeli side. Now that Israel has to present a plan to the Americans, it needs Egypt in order to prove that the plan is realistic. Suddenly, Israel is coordinating with Egypt military activity that relates to the Palestinians - but where was Israel until now, when there were opportunities to spare a little killing?"
However, these are not games of prestige, and if an opportunity presents itself, Egypt is there. It has already discussed the question of the border with the Palestinians, Egyptian intelligence personnel have been touring the Gaza Strip in the past few weeks, and the Palestinian side, both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, has stated that any Egyptian assistance toward an Israeli withdrawal will be welcomed, provided no Egyptian troops are sent into Gaza. According to the senior Egyptian official, the Palestinians have promised to maintain a "cold" Egyptian-Palestinian border - meaning no military activity that is liable to risk the prospect of the withdrawal or "harm Egyptian sovereignty" (i.e., infiltrations and smuggling).
In a situation in which Israel prefers not to coordinate the withdrawal from Gaza with the Palestinians or present a sustainable political plan, reliance on Egypt, both as a mediator and guardian of the border, is the best thing it can get. It could also be an opportunity to show that Egypt, like Jordan, can act as a buckle in proper security belts, because there is a convergence of security interests between the three countries.
However, as the Egyptian official said, "Egypt offered a theoretical response to a theoretical Israeli plan." Because in the meantime, it's Israel that is emphasizing that the disengagement plan has not been finalized and is now no more than a collection of ideas.