Tug-of-war: Egypt and Israel's border disputes

Ahmed Eleiba , Friday 2 Nov 2012

Egypt-Israel's relations remain back-and-forth, underling tensions despite reassuring messages regarding Camp David peace treaty, border issues and security in Sinai

A Hamas policeman stands guard near Egyptian soldiers at the gate of the Rafah border crossing in the southern Gaza Strip (Photo: Reuters)

Since the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) came to power, seemingly reassuring messages have been exchanged with Israel regarding the Camp David treaty. Although, behind the scenes there is a tug-of-war between the two sides. Egypt wants to amend an article in the treaty, but Israel refuses. Israel, on the other hand, requests more military visits to Egypt and changing the location of its embassy in the capital, but Egypt has rejected.

Most recently, Israeli intelligence leaked a story about the “American Road,” which is the security area that Tel Aviv claims Cairo erected in recent months with Sinai at the centre of key events. According to the Israeli story, Egypt is trying to establish a buffer security belt along the border with Israel that would only allow movements by Egyptian military and security forces, but prohibits the passage of civilians.

Military sources who relayed this story to the Israeli intelligence website DEBKAfile weeks ago said that the area known as the "American Road" in Sinai was secretly paved and prepared by the US Army’s Corps of Engineers. The source explained that this road connects the Sheikh Zoweid region on the coast of the Mediterranean across North Sinai until Taba along a distance of more than 260km. This road, according to the website, aims to enable direct contact between a new unit of Multinational Forces and Observers (MFO), of whom some are American, and the MFO unit that exists in Sharm El-Sheikh since most of the forces is from the US Airborne 82nd Division.

This road sometimes runs parallel to Road 12 in Israel between Nishata crossing point along the border with Egypt until Eilat, Israeli sources added. The source continued that while Egyptians want to keep the road open to MFO forces, they also want to keep terrorist elements away from the Egyptian-Israeli border. However, according to Israeli military sources, there are no serious efforts by the Egyptian military to control what happens on the road and surrounding areas, making it as vulnerable as it was in the past.

This Israeli story is not surprising to relevant sources in Cairo, who astonishingly admit there is some truth to the story, except that it is a future scenario that Israel is skillfully plotting and relentlessly pressuring Egypt to do through the US. A source very familiar with the issue said, “Israel is dealing with us very cunningly by leaking reports it wants to translate from fiction to reality, but they will remain fictional and a myth.”

Major General Mohamed Megahed Al-Zayyat, Director of the National Centre for Middle East Studies, is familiar with the details of this issue, and told Ahram Online that Israel is essentially trying to create a buffer zone under the US, Israeli and Egyptian control. Discussing the matter in such details paves the way for Israel’s desire to create a zone in Sinai similar to the one on the border of southern Lebanon monitored by UNIFIL, but without being subject to peacekeeping forces that are essentially American.

Al-Zayyat explained that the proposed zone has not been established. “First, how could Cairo work on this road with the help of the US, but at the same time Israel claims Cairo is neglecting it? Second, how can there be terrorist attacks on the border, such as Al-Boraykat assassination or even the recent attack targeting an Israeli unit if this road existed?”

Israel’s aim is essentially to create a buffer zone along the border. The forces would secure Israel, namely that the American troops in this buffer zone would be in charge, rendering the area as an international zone that is no longer under Egyptian sovereignty.”

Al-Zayyat explained that the area which the Israeli plan is based on is located in Zone C where Egyptian military presence is limited, according to the Camp David treaty. Therefore, it creates a safe corridor, ending any possibility of revising other articles in the treaty that would allow Egypt to increase its troops along the border.

He revealed even more ominous aspects of the American Road, namely that “for a long time Israel has suggested a three-way security system between Egypt-US-Israel, for the exchange of intelligence and coordination in confronting extremists in Sinai under the pretext of securing and supporting the Egyptian government in its work. The US promoted and supported this proposal, but Egypt rejected any form of foreign cooperation in Sinai, or any form of strategic security cooperation in Sinai in principle.”

Al-Zayyat further revealed that within this context, the US proposed to increase the equipment and arms of the MFOs on the border, under the pretext of boosting troop capability in dealing with current challenges. “I don’t believe the American rationale,” Al-Zayyat confided. “The role of MFOs is monitoring if both Egypt and Israel are complying with the Camp David treaty. Therefore, increasing their numbers and arms implies these troops would overstep their mission and play a security role in the region.”

The proposed security system is within the international effort to combat terrorism. “There is constant US persistence to partner with Egypt on international efforts to combat terrorism. Nevertheless, Cairo’s view is to benefit from the US intelligence and experience in this field, but rejects any operations in Sinai, such as those in Yemen and Afghanistan.

Sources closely monitoring the issue said the set-up could be similar to the US system planted in the heart of the Naqab Desert. Brigadier General Safwat Al-Zayyat believes it is located next to a key ballistic missile base in Naqab and most likely controlled by a US military base or US military team. This means Israel has no power there and under NATO. Washington allows this system to be connected with Turkey, Britain and other NATO members.

Brigadier General Al-Zayyat continued that Ankara may have sent negative signals about the system because of tense relations with Tel Aviv. Cairo probably read these signals and rejected this format. This complies with Zayyat’s earlier account that Cairo may want to receive intelligence without making a strategic intelligence link that could evolve into a defence relationship in the future.

Deputy Israeli Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon's statement about President Mohamed Morsi tapping Israel to alter Camp David is no secret. Sources in Cairo, some close to the presidency and key agencies, indicated last week that Egypt is leaning towards revision. Although, the stream of statements about compliance with Camp David and assertions by presidential spokesman, Yasser Ali, claim Egypt “has no intention of altering the Camp David treaty now.”

One source told Ahram Online that “Egypt respects the treaty overall, but we want to amend it not cancel it on principle. We also want to amend it on the basis of respect for rules of how to amend it.” The source highlighted the “now” in Ali’s statements which implies that changes may happen in the future.

Military, diplomatic and academic experts on Egyptian-Israeli issues were irritated by a statement Ya’alon made that “any agreement [meaning Camp David] that does not achieve Israel’s security is not worth the paper it is written on.” They counter the idea that security conditions in Egypt are more important than anything the deputy prime minister is chattering about, even though it is best not to fuss about the issue right now.

Ambassador Hussein Haridi, former assistant Foreign Minister, believes these matters require more favourable conditions, but others in Egypt disagree and want to strike while the iron is still hot, such as presidential adviser Esmat Seif Al-Dawla.

When asked about Israel’s plan to create a security zone on the border with Egypt, Seikf Al-Dawla said he “had not heard about this issue before.” He added it is very unlikely that Tel Aviv “would dare to present such a proposal at a time when all Egyptian currents are demanding the amendment of Article 4 of the treaty, which is to remove restrictions preventing Egypt to obtain complete military and security sovereignty over Sinai.

“At the heart of these restrictions is the nature of the MFOs that are under US command, not the UN, and the discrimination between Egypt and Israel. These forces are only present on Egyptian soil, while Israel refuses the presence of foreign forces on its soil and insists on only allowing civilian monitors in.”

Meanwhile, several experts suggested the opposite to President Morsi. Tarek Fahmy, an expert on Israeli affairs stated, “In recent times, Egypt gradually asked to reduce cooperation with Israel. Economically, Egypt requested a reduction in QIZ components from 11.5 per cent to 8 per cent. Politically, it is well known that Cairo refused to rent another location for the Israeli embassy."

“As for the peace treaty, many suggestions were made to the president about amending it. One camp targeted the treaty itself and the other proposed revising the treaty’s appendage security protocol. Of the two, it is clear that Israel would prefer or even appease Cairo in negotiations by writing up an additional protocol for the treaty that does not alter the treaty itself or its appendices."

This would be similar to the Philadelphia agreement years ago known as the unilateral separation, or Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, according to the clause on emergency security conditions and the problems of the border region. The protocol includes three main issues: the duration of a strategic warning between Cairo and Tel Aviv; security and intelligence cooperation; the military set up in Zone C.

Fahmy added: “The hawks in Israel’s National Security Council and what is known as the Committee of Seven and some political figures want to continue to pressure Egypt for agreements, including written letters extending Egypt’s commitment to the peace treaty and building a genuine partnership based on the treaty. This is demonstrated by highlighting the letter of appointment of Egypt’s new ambassador to Tel Aviv and other such documents.”

Amid this tug-of-war, one issue remains overlooked: the repercussions of early elections in Israel and presidential elections in the US. “We should not concern ourselves much with the Israeli elections because they will not change much on the current Israeli political scene,” stated Emad Gad, former MP and expert on Israeli affair at Al-Ahram Centre. “More important are the US elections.”

If Obama remains in power, then something new will certainly happen in a sophisticated diplomatic way, but if Romney wins we can only expect worse. Romney only views the Arab Spring as giving power to strong political Islamist forces in many countries in the region, and he will have other plans similar to US’s policies in Afghanistan.

Already, there are US reports referring to “Egypt’s Tora Bora,” namely Sinai, which could lead these proponents to instigate military intervention in Sinai imprudently.

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