Peace in Name Only

A close look at what remains of the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian agreement yields some disturbing revelations. The southern front may not be nearly as safe as Israel once thought.

What is left of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, 32 years later? A close examination of the agreement and its appendices this week, as Islamic parties chalked up impressive achievements in the first round of Egyptian elections, reveals a rather worrisome picture that Israel's leaders probably want to keep from public view.

Israel and Egypt have transitioned from a cold peace to a de-facto truce, and even that is breached sometimes, when terror attacks on Israeli territory are launched from Sinai. The current partial security coordination between the sides is definitely preferable to the situation before 1979, but it is hard to rule out the possibility that things won't deteriorate further, should the temporary military government transfer power to civilian parties, at a time when the Muslim Brotherhood is moving to the fore.

constuction on  Egypt-Israel border - Alon Ron
Alon Ron

The damage to Israeli-Egyptian relations is evident in realms of trade, tourism and diplomacy, too. This sometimes is due to the security situation in Sinai, and sometimes to specific Egyptian policies. Israel and Egypt are signatories to qualified industrial zone (QIZ ) agreements that enable joint exports to the United States, with significant customs discounts. In recent months, Bedouin snipers have been shooting at trucks on roads leading to the Sinai border crossings, and the QIZ shipments have all but stopped.

Egypt's natural gas exports to Israel have nearly halted, too. At the end of November, the pipeline to Israel, which runs through Sinai, was sabotaged for the ninth time. These attacks are also being carried out by Bedouin groups, which apparently want the regime to pay them to stop the sabotage. The ninth explosion occurred just a few days after the eighth, apparently since the latter attack did not shut down the pipeline entirely. In practice, the gas had not been flowing continuously anyway, and it is very doubtful the exports will be renewed.

Cairo's regime is not comfortable supplying Israel with gas in an ongoing way, especially since the Egyptian media reported that the original agreement stemmed from shady dealings by former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and his cronies, at the expense of the Egyptian public. Even if the supply is renewed, the Egyptians apparently want to reopen the contract in order to charge much higher rates, as they did recently with Jordan.

Meanwhile, Israel cannot rely on Egyptian gas for its energy needs. Israel Electric Corporation chairman Yiftach Ron-Tal said that Israelis are likely to pay much more for electricity next year, because the power company has had to find more expensive alternative fuels.

As for tourism, Egyptians only visited Israel right after the treaty was signed, and in very small numbers. Israeli tourism to Cairo (with the exception of Arab Israelis ) also dropped off in the years after the treaty. The anarchy in Sinai in recent months has done what years of terror attacks and grave government warnings never managed to do: Now only few Israelis are vacationing in Sinai.

Israeli ships can still pass through the Suez Canal, but traffic there in general has been hindered by strikes, and greater dangers loom. In April, Israel stopped an Iranian shipment of C-704 surface-to-sea missiles bound for Gaza. One can only imagine the implications for the canal if a Bedouin cell were to get its hands on such a shipment.

Israel and Egypt still maintain diplomatic and security relations, but not publicly. The Israeli Embassy in Cairo was closed after a mob attack in September, and currently there are no plans to reopen it. Israel's most senior diplomat in Cairo, whose profile is so low as to be invisible, is the deputy ambassador. Ambassador Yitzhak Levanon completed his term, and his replacement, Yaakov Amitai, has not yet presented his credentials to Cairo. When Israel urgently needed Field Marshal Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi to rescue the embassy's security guards, the Egyptian ruler did not return phone calls and the Obama administration's direct intervention was necessary.

Creeping militarization

In many senses, the demilitarization of Sinai is the most important security element in the peace agreement, but the Multinational Force and Observers in Sinai is frequently threatened by Bedouin tribes. Terror cells snipe at its bases and lay mines aimed at its convoys. In fact, the Americans recently started flying personnel in via helicopter in an attempt to minimize damage to the convoys.

A few months ago a gang of Bedouin attacked an Egyptian base in El Arish, killing two officers and 10 policemen; a similar attack on a MFO base could drive out its personnel. On the Israeli side, signs of increasing anxiety are visible at the force's headquarters. In any case, the clause calling for minimizing the security presence has been blatantly violated for years, and even more so during the past year. This began after the 2005 Gaza disengagement, when Israel asked Egypt to help it block arms-smuggling through tunnels from Sinai to Rafah. The Egyptians conditioned this on upgrading the forces deployed along the Philadelphi Route. Israel agreed to let Egypt replace 750 policemen with a similar number of better-equipped, better-trained border police. In practice, Egypt brought in the border police but didn't withdraw the other policemen, and Israel later agreed to let Egypt build a naval base at El Arish (to combat maritime smuggling ) and have military helicopters patrol the boarder - two more things that violate the agreement.

Then came the Tahrir Square protests, which resulted in anarchy in Sinai. Egypt asked Israel to let it send six infantry battalions into Sinai in order to impose order, and Israel agreed. Now there are two-and-a-half Egyptian brigades deployed in Sinai, beyond the forces permitted in the peace agreement. For its part, Israel is holding back, though the deployment has not clearly reduced riots, restrained the Bedouin or prevented terror attacks. The flow of African migrants across the boarder - many hundreds every month - is further proof that Israel needs to complete its border fence, but also that Egypt cannot, or maybe is choosing not to, deal with the problem.

The peace treaty has also been rendered meaningless by the fallout from the events in Tahrir and Sinai. This has had disturbing implications for border security. The August 18 attack, when a well-trained Bedouin cell (which Israeli intelligence says received funding and instruction from Palestinian factions in Gaza ) crossed the border and killed eight Israelis along Highway 12 to Eilat, was a bad omen. This too is a change of almost strategic significance - the border used to be plagued only by criminal activity, but now there is a real danger of terror attacks.

However, Israel needs to consider far more serious scenarios: restrictions of movement of the Israel Defense Forces should there be an escalation of events in Gaza; the entry of Egyptian units in Sinai; and maybe even war, although at the moment this seems unlikely. A critical question for Israel is what this says for military maneuvers on other fronts.

Since the 1979 agreement, Israel has been through two intifadas and two wars in Lebanon, while Egypt usually remained silent. Israel, for its part, while blaming the August 18 attack on Gazan elements, refrained from responding with excessive force and apologized after Egyptian policemen were killed. Brig. Gen. (res. ) Moshe (Chico ) Tamir, a former Gaza Division commander, said this week at a conference at the Institute for National Security Studies that Israel launched Operation Cast Lead under unusually convenient circumstances that are unlikely to recur.

"The Muslim Brotherhood has promised to honor the peace agreement with Israel," acting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman told Yedioth Ahronoth this week. But thus far, the Obama administration's predictions and management have utterly failed when it comes to Egypt, so it is best to treat this reassurance with caution.

"The erosion of the peace agreement could lead to the Egyptian army entering Sinai," said Maj. Gen. (ret. ) Yoav Galant, speaking at Tel Aviv University this week. He reminded his audience that this was one of the main reasons why the Six-Day War broke out. Would Israel act in such a case? "That is a big question," said Galant.

"The attacks from Sinai during Tantawi's transitional period are the result of a blunder in military supervision," said Col. (res. ) Ronen Cohen, a former top IDF Military Intelligence officer. "If the Muslim Brotherhood indeed gains influence, terror attacks are likely to be more common over the next few years, with Cairo knowingly looking the other way. The Egyptians will not launch an intentional conflict with us, in part because they are in desperate need of U.S. financial aid."

1 million soldiers

Over the past 30 years, the Egyptian army almost entirely disappeared from the IDF's list of threatening elements. Galant noted that in every war involving Egypt, this was Israel's most dangerous front. Currently, that army has 1 million soldiers, half of them conscripts; 4,000 tanks; thousands of artillery pieces; 200 F-16 aircraft; more than 170 ships; and above all ongoing military assistance from the United States. Even during the years of peace, this army has conducted large, annual training maneuvers targeting a nameless country to the east - not its unstable neighbors Libya and Sudan.

Israel's biggest change in light of recent events has been the acceleration of work on the fence along the Egyptian border. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is now talking about also building a similar fence along the southern portion of the border with Jordan, mainly due to concerns that African refugees will find an alternative route if their path through Sinai is blocked.

The number of IDF troops stationed along the Egyptian border has doubled since August, and a regular infantry brigade is now deployed in the area. The capabilities of the regional Edom Division along the border have been upgraded considerably. The IDF is still discussing re-establishing the southern regiment command, which would command forces in Sinai in an emergency.

Chief of Staff Benny Gantz has told officers that the army "has to start facing south." The IDF needs to plan seriously for pessimistic scenarios while avoiding any public moves, which could insult the Egyptians and increase the tension. The main problem is that during the decades when the attention was directed at other arenas, most of the knowledge concerning southern-desert fighting was forgotten, and the operational and intelligence-gathering capabilities were intentionally diminished, in part due to limited resources. Now, too, the army needs to be cautious about gathering intelligence regarding a country considered friendly.

Galant, during his five years as GOC Southern Command, was the Cassandra about the future Egyptian danger. His superiors were not anxious to address this, both due to a lack of time and resources and concerns of angering state leaders. The intelligence processes are largely confined to the Southern Command. Galant called this "an insurance policy with a low premium." Now the army needs to pay a far higher premium.

"Over the years, the thinking was that Military Intelligence would provide a year or two's advance warning about expected changes in Egypt, but the Arab spring spread too quickly," says intelligence officer Ronen Cohen. "Israel needs to consider Mubarak's fall as a strategic warning. This requires diverting significant resources from the multi-year plan, right at a time when our own social protest have put cutting the defense budget back on the agenda."