Thirty years after it was signed, the Egypt-Israel peace treaty is the focus of attention in strategic debate in Washington, Tel Aviv and Cairo. The renewed interest arises from the recent terrorist attacks which have hit the Sinai Peninsula since the fall of the Mubarak regime, and the subsequent shifts in security measures that followed, in coordination with the Israelis and United States.
During what has often been a heated debate about the peace treaty, conflicting views have emerged, with Tel Aviv and Washington on one side, and the new regime in Cairo on the other. Israel and the US are keen to keep the treaty intact and in the form it has taken since it was signed in 1979; no amendments are necessary or sought. Israel goes as far as to say that any changes, reforms or cancellation of the treaty will not only create a minefield between Cairo, Washington and Tel Aviv, but also threaten the relative stability of the whole region.
Post-revolution Egypt, on the other hand, believes that the treaty’s terms undermine its national interests, jeopardising its sovereignty and security in a big way. This, believe the Egyptians, necessitates a reconsideration of the treaty to redress some of the inbuilt imbalance and injustice. Provision is made such amendments in the treaty itself; modify and reform it in a manner that guarantees solving this imbalance and injustice, especially that both parties of the treaty have the right to review it as per sections four and six of article four, Annex “A”.
Thus, national movements are expected to call for the parts of the treaty dealing with the deployment of troops in the Sinai Peninsula to be amended, especially regarding the numbers and types of forces and weapons. Specialist troops capable of tracking and tackling cross-border infiltration and smuggling from Rafah in the north to Taba in the south would redress some of the current imbalance imposed by the peace treaty.
Globalisation and the communications revolution has made cooperation and coordination between security and intelligence forces a mainstay of their activities post-Cold War. At its core is the principle of collective security and the desire to coordinate international efforts to combat transnational threats such as terrorism, organised crime and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
That was the context in which the peace treaty signed between Egypt and Israel in 1979 was located. It paved the way for coordination between the security and intelligence agencies in both countries.
However, the perceived need for this has intensified under the pretext of a raised threat level from terror organisations and armed Jihadist groups in Sinai after the ouster of Mubarak’s regime in February 2011. Official Israeli sources continue to confirm that there is security coordination between Israeli and Egyptian representatives on the ground, in addition to continued dialogue between high-level officials in the Israeli security forces and their counterparts in Egypt. As the sponsor of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, the US has been a third party at all stages of the security and intelligence coordination between Egypt and Israel, to the point that successive US administrations have exerted great pressure on Cairo to push it to continue such links.
This has led on occasion to Israel having to accept a number of temporary exceptions to the terms of the treaty regarding the deployment of Egyptian forces in Sinai. For example, when Israel withdrew its settlers from Gaza in 2005, the number of Egyptian troops across the border was increased, with heavy artillery in their armoury. Similarly, following the attack against its soldiers in Rafah in August, Israel agreed to allow Egypt to deploy more troops to the highest level since the October War of 1973. Nevertheless, Israel is keen to avoid any possibility of such deployments becoming permanent features of the agreement between the two states.
Indeed, keeping such security and intelligence cooperation in place has seen a lot of effort expended at the highest levels by Israeli politicians and security officials. Their aim is to maintain the peace treaty in its current form at all costs, not least to prevent tension and mistrust developing in the relationship.
Such is the degree of panic affecting some Israelis that those on the extremes of the political spectrum have warned the new government in Egypt that there will be serious consequences if it pushes for amendments to the treaty. Moreover, after expressing his concern at what he called the systematic attempts by President Morsi to reduce security coordination between Egypt and Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatened to send Israeli troops to fight the terrorists, as he sees them, in Sinai. Even though this threat is being interpreted in different ways, it essentially exposes the weakness of the cooperation between Cairo and Tel Aviv. As long as Israeli politicians exploit the presence of Egyptian troops in Sinai to scare their own citizens that there is a threat from Egypt, the US and Israel will continue to insist that the peace treaty remains in its current form, regardless of the terms of the treaty which allow for amendments to be discussed and agreed.
When Israel leaked a copy of the letter of accreditation sent by the new government in Cairo for its ambassador to Tel Aviv, it was to expose that what some observers in Egypt claim is a “provocative” use of words in the document which is actually rather friendly and positive. The Egyptian presidency and foreign ministry said that the letter was the usual for such occasions, but it has sparked off a debate in Egypt about the use of such a friendly format in a formal document sent to the Israelis.
This, say President Morsi’s critics, is at odds with his public pronouncements, and those of his aides, about Israel, which saw the Egyptian leader not even mentioning Israel’s name in his speech to the United Nations in October.
Observers see a correlation between the Israeli leak of the Egyptian ambassador’s accreditation letter and three important indicators.
First, the Muslim Brotherhood’s General Guide, Dr. Mohamed Badee’a used his weekly online statement to call for the liberation of Palestine and Al-Aqsa Mosque from the Israeli occupation. The Israelis, insisted Badee’a, know only the language of power and tyranny.
Israel’s leaking of the document, it is suggested, demonstrates the intention to embarrass the Muslim Brotherhood and call into question President Morsi’s credibility with regard to his position on relations with Israel. The crisis is exacerbated by the fact that this is not the first leak of this nature. Israel has put five documents into the public domain, including letters and official communications between Cairo and Tel Aviv, all purporting to show how keen the new Egyptian leadership is about getting closer to Tel Aviv, in direct contrast to the stated positions of Egyptians who are seemingly keen for a more hard line approach to Israel.
Second is Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s renewed refusal of the Egyptian request to change the peace treaty in a manner that allows Egypt to increase the number and strength of its forces in Sinai. Netanyahu justifies this by saying that any changes to the treaty endanger it and will be an obstacle to other peace treaties in the region in the future.
Finally, we have Israeli and pro-Israel lobbyists adopting strategies to highlight what they say is Egypt’s inability to protect its own sovereignty in Sinai which is, it is alleged, about to become a centre for terrorists who target Israel and the stability of the region as well as Western and American interests. Thus, Israel is attempting to rally international opinion in support of Tel Aviv’s refusal to amend the contents of the peace treaty and pave the way for international or Israeli military intervention for in Sinai.
As such, the timing of Israel’s leak of the ambassador’s letter of accreditation suggests the presence of a US-backed scheme to hand over the responsibility for security in Sinai to Israel. Thus, it is hoped, Israel will be able to monitor the situation on its border with Egypt more closely, not only for terrorist and potential attacks on its own citizens, but also to prevent illegal immigrants coming into the country, predominantly from Africa.
While Israel has made significant strides to implement this scheme, the Egyptian government can still challenge it through transparent leadership, building bridges with critics and putting national interests over and above those of political factions. Only then will Egypt be in a position to stand up to Israeli and Western pressures and push through discussions on amendments to the peace treaty with Israel. Above all else, Egypt must ensure that it, and it alone, has security control over Egyptian territory in Sinai or anywhere else.
The author is a researcher at the Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, Cairo. This article is a translation from the Arabic which appeared on al Jazeera net 27/10/2012