Foreign Min. Backs Egyptian Request to Double Its Forces on Gaza Border

Defense Ministry and the IDF strongly oppose allowing Egypt to upgrade its forces along the frontier.

The Foreign Ministry is recommending that Israel allow Egypt to double the number of soldiers it has stationed along its borders with Israel and Gaza - something that Cairo has long wanted to do, but that Jerusalem has hitherto vetoed.

Since the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty strictly limits the forces that Egypt can deploy along these borders, any increase would require Israel's consent.

Foreign Ministry Tzipi Livni plans to present her ministry's recommendation Wednesday at a special meeting in the Prime Minister's Office concerning the Gaza-Egypt border.

It is not yet clear whether this will be a meeting of the full diplomatic-security cabinet or a smaller forum. Either way, however, the goal will be to formulate a new policy for the border in light of Hamas's success in breaching it two weeks ago.

Livni said in a closed meeting on Monday that the problem at the Egyptian border required a twofold solution: the reinforcement of troops and the construction of a fence along the frontier.

A special agreement signed by Jerusalem and Cairo following Israel's disengagement from Gaza in August 2005 allowed the Egyptians to station 750 border policemen along the Gaza border, in addition to the regular policemen stationed there under the Israel-Egypt peace treaty. Since then, Egypt has repeatedly sought to double this number, to 1,500, and the United States has backed its request, but Israel refused.

Now, however, the Foreign Ministry recommends approving the request. It also recommends allowing these soldiers to be equipped with more sophisticated weaponry than is currently allowed under the peace treaty.

The Defense Ministry and the Israel Defense Forces strongly oppose allowing Egypt to upgrade its forces along the border. The defense establishment argues that the upgraded forces would constitute a security threat to Israel, and that the precedent entailed by reopening the peace treaty is dangerous.

However, the Foreign Ministry has prepared a legal opinion which argues that allowing the force increase would not require reopening the peace treaty. As evidence, it cites the agreement signed after the disengagement, which was not considered an amendment to the treaty.

Until recently, the Foreign Ministry shared the defense establishment's opposition to a force increase, arguing that an increase was unnecessary, and that Egypt could do much more to stop the weapons smuggling into Gaza with its existing forces.

According to a senior government official, it changed its mind mainly because "the situation on the border between Gaza and Egypt has changed, and therefore, elements of Israel's position on this matter must change as well."

The official rejected the idea that doubling the number of Egyptian soldiers on the border would constitute a threat to Israel, and argued that this would help Egypt cut down on weapons smuggling and terrorist infiltrations across the border.

"A serious country must constantly weigh which is worse," he said. "Is it preferable to have another 750 Egyptian soldiers in the area, or for a new status quo to crystallize in which the border is wide open and there are not enough troops to seal it?"

The Foreign Ministry began studying the Egyptian request two months ago, but the issue gained urgency after Hamas blew up the border wall two weeks ago. That same day, Livni ordered Aaron Abramovitz, the ministry's director general, to set up a special task force to deal with the issue. The task force was headed by Yaakov Hadas, the ministry's deputy director general for the Middle East, who was summoned back from meetings in Washington to take on the job.

His group defined the situation on the Gaza border as "a strategic shift that threatens the continuation of the diplomatic negotiations" with the Palestinians, and therefore began seeking ways of altering the situation diplomatically.