The Philadelphi Route and the Next War

Even 26 years after the signing of the peace treaty with Egypt, many believe that the peace is temporary, and that Israel must prepare for the next war with Egypt.

There are quite a few policy makers in Jerusalem who believe that deploying several hundred Egyptian soldiers along the Philadelphi route is a strategic mistake, which will lead to disaster. The most prominent and outspoken among them is, of course, Yuval Steinitz, chair of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. But he is not alone.

Even 26 years after the signing of the peace treaty with Egypt, many believe, as does Steinitz, that the peace is temporary, and that Israel must prepare for the next war with Egypt. The strongest proof of Egypt's true intentions is its massive military armament. Why does Egypt need such a large and advanced army, they ask, if it has no intention of fighting Israel in the future? After all, Egypt has no other enemies whose military power justifies such extensive armament. And if Egypt is in fact planning war, why should Israel help it prepare, by allowing the deployment of an Egyptian military force on the border of the Gaza Strip?

In the security services, opinion was divided on the issue of deploying the Egyptian soldiers at Philadelphi, but in the end, the army adopted the prime minister's position and cooperated with the Egyptian army so that the route could be transferred to it in an orderly fashion. This is no small thing if we recall that only two years ago, it was Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz who expressed surprise and concern at increasing Egyptian strength.

It is true that the Egyptian army is becoming stronger. During the past two decades, it has become a modern army equipped with the best in Western arms. The Egyptian Air Force has about 220 F-16 combat planes, and its armored corps has 3,500 tanks, including advanced American Abrams tanks. It has ballistic missiles, and about half a million regular soldiers make up its ranks. It is also true that Libya and Sudan, which border Egypt, do not represent a genuine military threat.

However, the reason for the military strengthening of Egypt is not the desire to wage war on Israel, but rather fear of Israel. It is hard for Israelis to believe that anyone is liable to consider their peace-loving country a military threat. But as is written in the annual report on the balance of power in the Middle East recently published by Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, Egypt sees Israel as a genuine threat, for several reasons.

The first is that the Israel Defense Forces is stronger than Egypt's army. The Egyptian regime sees Israel as an unstable factor, which tends to use force to resolve political problems. Egypt believes that Israel has extremist forces, whose rise to power is liable to lead to belligerence. In Cairo they have not forgotten the declaration by Avigdor Lieberman, who as minister of national infrastructure in 2001 warned that the IDF could destroy the Aswan Dam. Egypt regards the building of a modern military force as a factor that will deter Israel and ensure the stability of the peace treaty.

A third reason involves Egypt's low self-image in relation to Israel. Israeli economic, military, scientific and technological superiority intensifies Egyptian frustration, and this gap spurs Egypt to compete with Israel in the area of arming itself.

Regarding the fear of Egypt's increased military strength, the Jaffee Center researchers state that "While the Egyptian army has closed gaps in the area in which it was weak during the Yom Kippur War, the IDF has been racing ahead, and has even widened the qualitative gap, thanks to the technological revolution it has carried out. The future war is based on guided weapons, intelligence systems for collecting targets and control systems that provide integration between intelligence and the sources of fire. You don't see that in the Egyptian army." Military Intelligence shares this assessment of the gap between the IDF and the Egyptian army.

But even if they are all mistaken, a rational analysis of Egypt's economic situation, its dependence on the United States and its long-term political aims reveals that war against Israel totally contradicts its national interests. Even Egypt's long-term civilian projects do not testify to preparation for war. In the Kantara area, a peace bridge is being built with Japanese funding, and in another place near the canal, the Firdan Bridge, which was destroyed in the Yom Kippur War, is being rebuilt.

The Egyptians are also planning to build a road from the bridge to Gaza. "Anyone thinking of an attack would not have built billions of dollars worth of infrastructure, which can be destroyed with one missile," it was said in an intelligence discussion.

But even if this assessment is basically incorrect, an Egyptian decision to go to war against Israel will take a huge toll on the Egyptian army. The Sinai Peninsula, which separates Israel from Egypt, is a partition area 200-300 kilometers in width. Here too, it is worthwhile listening to the Jaffee Center: Sinai is a desert region, almost without vegetation and with a sparse population, and therefore it is an ideal "killing ground." If the Egyptian army dares to cross the Suez Canal and enter Sinai, it will find itself in a trap in which the IDF, by means of its precision weapons, has absolute superiority over it. For Steinitz's information, the 750 Egyptian soldiers deployed along the Philadelphi route will not change this scenario.