The Sharon government is currently enjoying a relationship with the United States free of diplomatic and security disagreements except for one topic - the future of the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) in the Sinai Peninsula. The MFO oversees the implementation of the Camp David peace accord's military aspects and keeps an eye on the the two countries' security measures.
At the root of the problem is the Pentagon's demand to reduce the American force stationed in the Sinai and maintain a strictly symbolic one. U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld wants to reduce the number of American troops spread across the world and concentrate them to focus on important missions. The hundreds of U.S. soldiers sunbathing on the Sinai's sand dunes appear to him as unnecessary. Already, during Rumsfeld's first meeting with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, he requested that the Sinai forces be reduced.
A trilateral meeting between Egyptian, Israeli and American officials is scheduled to take place this week in Washington to discuss the MFO's fate in the Sinai.
The future of the force in the tranquil Sinai desert appears to be a miniscule problem compared with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the agenda at this week's trilateral meeting is already loaded with issues of far greater concern and more disturbing. But the importance of the MFO issue extends far beyond Rumsfeld's logistic demand to concentrate American soldiers currently spread across the globe, since the Egyptian model could prove useful in future peace agreements between Israel and Syria, and the Palestinians.
The MFO was established in a trilateral agreement between America, Israel and Egypt, who make the decisions regarding the force and carry most of its financial burden ($51 million a year), with a little help from Japan, Germany and Switzerland.
The skeleton force is compiled of 865 American soldiers, making for one infantry and one logistic battalion. The infantry battalion is replaced every six months and is mostly made up of reservists. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, Douglas Feith, proposed removing almost all of the soldiers from Sinai while leaving 27 men to symbolically represent an American presence.
Over the last decade, Egypt has requested that the multinational force be dismantled because it infringes on its sovereignty and restricts its control over the Sinai. Israel, who during this time conducted peace negotiations with Syria and the Palestinians, strongly objected to any change, and America consented.
But today the tables have turned. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak strongly objects to any change in the American military deployment in the Sinai due to the "tension in the region." Opinions in Washington and Jerusalem are split and a strange coalition has come into existence. Those holding hawkish opinions regarding the Palestinians are prepared to make compromises and cuts in the Sinai force while dovish opinion holders object.
Rumsfeld and Feith, who are among Israel's biggest supporters in Washington, are calling for a reduction in the force. The State Department objects, claiming that such a reduction would send a message to Mideast nations of an American decline during a period when the U.S. wants to demonstrate strong leadership in the Middle East. According to Israeli sources, the White House supports the State Department's opinion on the matter but has yet to reach a final decision.
The picture is similar in Israel. The foreign ministry rejects any change due to diplomatic reasons. While the defense ministry is interested in reaching a compromise with the Americans in order to make gains in other areas deemed to be far more important, it objects to the deep cuts in the force proposed by the Pentagon. "We cannot accept such cuts," high-ranking defense officials said. According to the officials, if the U.S. troops pull out, the whole force would collapse with the other countries following America's lead.
Sharon appears to be leaning towards the defense ministry's approach. He sees symbolic importance in maintaining the multinational force, including the American presence and leadership within the MFO, but he is also willing to make a compromise that would maintain the principle of the force's mission yet allow for changes in its execution. Sharon's position on the issue was presented to Rumsfeld last May and has not changed since.
American officials proposed withdrawing the logistic battalion while leaving behind the infantry battalion made up of some 509 soldiers and 27 American command personnel. Officials in the prime minister's bureau and the defense establishment said that such a compromise had promise.
Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, another supporter of Israel, spoke last week of the frustration over the Pentagon's efforts to reduce the current force in the Sinai. On a visit to Afghanistan, Wolfowitz said, that while most people believe that a military deployment is unnecessary in the region after 20 years of peace, considering the current situation in the Middle East, not only the Egyptians and the Israelis but also the State Department says it's a bad time to cut the force. This week Wolfowitz and his colleagues are expected to put pressure on their Egyptian and Israeli guests.