By Yuval Steinitz Haaretz 4 December 2006
Egypt's behavior in Sinai and along the Philadelphi route, which enables the
large-scale arming of terror organizations, requires a reexamination of
Israeli policy. Many people have become convinced in recent months that
Egypt intends to allow the Israelis and the Palestinians to bleed together.
These suspicions began to crop up among policymakers in Washington by 2000,
after the failure of the Camp David summit and the outbreak of the second
We should recall that at that same summit, then-prime minister Ehud Barak
prepared a "strategic surprise": his proposal to divide Jerusalem, including
the Old City, in order to stun Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat
and motivate him to sign a peace agreement. Barak believed Arafat would find
it difficult to resist the temptation of a historic achievement - a
Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem - and would sign to end the conflict.
However, the voice of the opposition arose, and it wasn't coming from just
the "resistance front." Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak hastened to warn on
television that Arafat did not have the power to decide on Jerusalem,
because the Old City belonged to all Arabs and Muslims, and dividing it
would constitute betrayal. Mubarak's intervention in these critical moments
led to a rare public complaint by then-U.S. secretary of state Madeleine
Albright about his "contribution" to the peace process.
To this we must add Egypt's strange behavior regarding the peace process
between Israel and Jordan. The Egyptians complained for years about their
isolation in the Arab world due to their peace agreement with Israel. That
was also the explanation given for Mubarak's refusal to visit Israel and for
the cold peace, which he promised would warm when more countries joined the
circle. So what was Egypt's attitude to the political process with Jordan?
It turns out Egypt was so eager to emerge from its isolation that it applied
tremendous pressure on the late King Hussein to keep him from signing an
agreement with Israel. Egypt did not even send proper representation to the
signing ceremony in the Arava; Mubarak, who was invited, preferred to remain
The same pattern of behavior was also seen when Yitzhak Rabin sought to
achieve full diplomatic relations with Qatar and Morocco. To Rabin's
disappointment, Egypt managed to torpedo agreements with these countries at
the last moment. Of course one can find ad hoc explanations for Egypt's
behavior in each and every case, but looking at the complete picture, one
sees an Egyptian strategy that is not in tandem with its declared policy of
promoting regional peace.
Increased arms flow
What is Egypt's real attitude toward the Palestinian Authority and the
terror organizations in the territories? Most of the weapons and ammunition
that enter Gaza pass through Egyptian territory. It is a convention that any
country that does not do everything in its power to prevent arms from being
smuggled to terror organizations is considered a silent supporter of terror.
Smuggling from Egypt is steadily increasing. The Shin Bet security services
reports that every year, more than 20,000 rifles, millions of bullets,
hundreds of RPG anti-tank missiles, tons of regulation explosive materials
and additional equipment that could arm several infantry divisions pass
through Egypt. For the sake of comparison, Jordan is much more determined in
its anti-smuggling activity, and the results correspond to the effort.
As opposed to the prevailing impression, in order to stop the smuggling,
Egypt does not need to go to battle in the tunnels under the Philadelphi
route. The reality is much easier to implement: It must deploy checkpoints
on the few highways and dirt roads leading toward Rafah, and intercept the
convoys of weapons and ammunitions. Egypt also should catch and jail the
chief smugglers in El Arish and Cairo, thus breaking up the smuggling
networks like the Jordanians did.
And, of course, there is the diplomatic sphere. When Hamas political leader
Khaled Meshal and his friends are repeatedly invited to meetings with
Egyptian ministers in Cairo, this constitutes a type of vital diplomatic
backing for Hamas vis-a-vis not only Israel, but Fatah and PA Chairman
Mahmoud Abbas as well. The same was true about two years ago, when the
Egyptians tried to achieve a hudna (cease-fire). They proposed that in
exchange for a temporary cease-fire, a historic guarantee would be given not
to disarm Hamas or bring it down by force.
The clandestine Egyptian protection of Hamas began during Arafat's time. In
April 1996, before the elections between Shimon Peres and Benjamin
Netanyahu, U.S. president Bill Clinton pressured Arafat to fight terror.
That was the only time Arafat ordered his interior minister Nasser Yousef to
use force against Hamas activists in Gaza, which led to many arrests, a
number of deaths and the closing of mosques. The Egyptians made sure to say
two things on this issue: The first, which was meant for Clinton's ears, was
that "Arafat must act to stop the terror attacks"; the second, which was
meant for Arafat and Abbas, was, "The Palestinians must avoid a civil war."
This phenomenon is not restricted to Israel. Egypt's behavior does not
deviate from prevailing regional norms: For years, Syria has been
encouraging Hezbollah and other organizations to terrorize Lebanon, the
Kurdish PKK to act against Turkey, and internal terror in Jordan and Iraq;
likewise, Saddam Hussein's Iraq encouraged Sunni terror in Syria,
Palestinian terror in Jordan and communist and Kurdish terror in Iran.
It would seem that the counter-argument of many commentators in the
intelligence community and the media - that Egypt cannot support Hamas
because it is afraid of Islamic terror at home - is groundless. History has
shown that it is possible to repress the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt while
meanwhile encouraging their brothers in Palestine, just as Saddam Hussein's
Iraq cruelly persecuted its Kurds while arming those in Iran, and vice
versa. Middle Eastern countries tend to believe (justly) that terror or
subversion among their neighbors has no direct effect on their own
So why does Egypt behave as it does? Apparently its policy toward Hamas has
several goals. The first and clearest is exhausting and weakening Israel
over the years. Egypt's failure to prevent the massive arming of the
Palestinians over the past year is designed to facilitate the establishment
of an arrangement in Gaza similar to that with Hezbollah in Lebanon, which
is designed to make things difficult for Israel in the case of a regional
Another hoped-for result is the undoing of eastern Sinai's demilitarization.
The Egyptians believe that intensified smuggling and the resulting
deterioration will demonstrate the importance of Egyptian military control
in eastern Sinai. The demands to change the peace agreements are based on
this thinking. There already has been limited rearmament along the
Another topic that should be discussed is Egypt's military buildup. Egypt
has no existential threats nor active border conflicts. Nevertheless, for
years Egypt has been acquiring, thanks in part to American assistance,
impressive conventional military superiority over the other Arab and African
The usual intelligence and media explanations are that Egypt still feels
threatened by Israel. That is surprising. It is clear that since Israel
relinquished the entire Sinai Peninsula, including its rich oil fields, for
the sake of peace and stability, it has no intention to fight for that same
territory again. Nevertheless, Egypt, a poor country, continues to invest
billions of dollars annually in building up its military might. Now, after
25 years, it has achieved a quantitative balance with Israel in some areas,
and in other areas has even left Israel far behind. The Egyptian Air Force
has roughly the same number of modern warplanes - most of them American
F-16s - as the Israel Air Force, whereas Egypt has far more Western tanks,
artillery, anti-aircraft batteries and warships than the Israel Defense
Since the signing of the peace agreement, Egypt has received about $40
billion in U.S. military assistance. It's true Israel has received more, but
as opposed to its southern neighbor, Israel cannot channel all its resources
into fortifying itself against Egypt. It meanwhile had to fortify itself
against Syria and Iraq, the Palestinians and Hezbollah in the north, and
Palestinian terror in the heart of the country.
Another worrisome development is related to military maneuvers. Since 1996,
about three years after the Oslo process began, most of Egypt's military
maneuvers have simulated war against Israel. For the first time during that
period, the Egyptian army's annual exercise - the Bader combined forces
exercise - received a subheading explicitly naming the opposing force as "a
small nation to the country's northeast" (I have since then wondered whether
Egypt has something against Lebanon).
Education and incitement
Finally, it is impossible not to mention the anti-Israel education and the
harsh incitement in the media. About 30 years after Anwar Sadat visited
Israel, Egyptian students are still learning that Israel is the source of
evil in the region. Most textbook maps label the area east of Egypt not as
"Israel" but as "Palestine." The Egyptian media also frequently denies
Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state. And of course there is
anti-Semitic incitement as well.
About two years ago, at the conclusion of the Sharm el-Sheikh summit, the
presidents of the U.S. and Egypt held a press conference on the Sinai coast.
Bush spoke about the obligation of Arab countries to end the incitement
against Israel, the West and the Jewish people.
In the direct broadcasts Mubarak was seen nodding his head in agreement, but
Egyptian citizens saw something else, because at the same time Egyptian
national television was broadcasting another installment of a television
series based on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which described the
Jews as Satanic powers of darkness trying to destroy the world.
Twenty-five years ago we gave up Sinai for a peace agreement with Egypt. If
Egypt has all along been making it difficult to expand the circle of peace
with moderate Arab countries, if it ignores arms smuggling to terror
organizations in Gaza, if it provides camouflaged diplomatic support to
Hamas, if it educates the younger generation to hate Israel, and if it
invests in a huge military buildup geared entirely to the possibility of a
conflict with Israel, this is not the peace we expected.
Dr. Steinitz is a Likud MK and the chair of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and
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