Tension along the 150-mile (230-kilometer) Israeli-Egyptian border remains high in light of intelligence information that Gaza-based Palestinian Arab Islamists plan further cross-border attacks from Sinai into the Negev.
An August 18 incursion near Eilat claimed eight Israeli lives and has generated recriminations within Israel's defense establishment over why the dispatchers were eliminated only after the attack.
Israel relied on Cairo to prevent the incursion. While Egyptian border guards spotted the terrorists they did not intercept them. Later in hot pursuit of the attackers three Egyptian guards were killed either by accidental IDF gunfire or when an explosive belt worn by one of the fleeing gunmen detonated. Three of the infiltrators turned out to have been Egyptian citizens. In response, the Cairo Street erupted in renewed anti-Israel frenzy. Young men competed for adulation with rival claims over who scaled the Israeli Embassy building to tear down its flag for burning.
Rather than take Cairo to task for allowing the cross-border incursion in the first place, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and President Shimon Peres apologized for the loss of Egyptian life. Planning by Gaza's Popular Resistance Committees for so sizable an attack is unlikely to have escaped Hamas's notice. But concern over deteriorating relations with post-Mubarak Egypt apparently inhibited an Israeli retaliation against Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.
The 1979 Peace Treaty obligates Egypt to secure Sinai with a limited troop presence while keeping it demilitarized. After Operation Cast Lead in January 2009, Israel agreed to permit Egypt to move more troops into the Peninsula to contain jihadi elements, Palestinian Islamists and Bedouin gangs responsible for repeated attacks on a pipeline supplying natural gas to Israel (and Jordan). Since the Mubarak regime was toppled, Israel has twice agreed to allow Cairo to deploy more troops. Egypt now has 10,000 troops in the Peninsula with about 4,000 stationed along the Israeli border. It is unclear whether these ad hoc increases are reversible or whether the security vacuum -- a record 2,000 infiltrators mostly illegal refugees managed to cross the Egypt-Israel border last month -- is the result of weak policing in a difficult terrain or a persistent lack of will carried over from the Mubarak era. Not surprisingly, the flow of ever more lethal weaponry making its way through Sinai to Hamas-controlled Gaza has been increasing notwithstanding episodic Egyptian containment efforts.
Egyptians say they view the need to obtain Israeli approval for shifting troops into Sinai an affront to their national pride and their country's sovereignty. Egypt's Supreme Military Council has been pushing hard to amend the treaty arguing that new security threats demand permanently lifting the ceiling on the number of troops allowed into the Peninsula. The treaty does contain a clause that allows security arrangements to be amended by mutual agreement. Both Cairo and Jerusalem agree that ad hoc solutions have been exhausted. Israel's Haaretz newspaper supports official Egyptian demands to amend the treaty; Egypt's Al Ahram said what Egyptians really want is to have it abrogated altogether. Indeed, leading Egyptian figures have repeatedly emphasized that the peace treaty is not "sacrosanct."
With Turkish-Israel relations at a nadir, ties with Jordan practically on life-support, the EU wavering over whether to back Mahmoud Abbas's unilateral push for UN recognition of a Palestinian state along the 1949 Armistice Lines, and the Jewish state facing a range of security threats stemming from Iran and its proxies, it's no wonder that Jerusalem has been considering taking exceptional steps to preserve the cold peace with Cairo.
Barak has been floating the idea, in advance of anticipated presidential elections in Egypt this winter, of holding a strategic dialogue with Cairo in search of ways to make the treaty more palatable to Egyptian voters long inculcated by venomous anti-Israel cant in their media. Barak hopes amending the demilitarization clauses can salvage the treaty. The probable consequence would be abandoning Israel's veto over how many Egyptian troops could be stationed in Sinai. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is opposed to changing the treaty but has implied that if formerly offered he'd bring Barak's proposal to the Cabinet.
Hosni Mubarak did nothing to foster support for the peace treaty and occasionally diverted domestic attention by playing the anti-Israel card. Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, Egypt's de-facto ruler, has followed a similar line as illustrated by the continued incarceration of Ilan Grapel on trumped-up espionage charges. Still, if Tantawi (perhaps from behind the scenes) or one of his henchmen continue to rule, the bare bones of the treaty is likely to be preserved in return for continued U.S. military aid ($40 billion since the 1970s). On the other hand, virtually all the declared presidential candidates from across the political spectrum have staked out positions that put into question the long-term viability of the treaty.
Modifying the treaty to appease popular anti-Israel sentiment could open a Pandora's box. If today's limit on the number of soldiers is an "affront" to Egyptian sensibilities who's to say forbidding the Egyptian Air Force from holding maneuvers over Sinai won't be the next "affront" to be overcome? The Jordan-Israel peace treaty is no less unpopular. Would not amending the treaty with Egypt put pressure on King Abdullah II? Moreover, any viable Israeli deal with the Palestinian faction led by Mahmoud Abbas would require demilitarization of the West Bank. What signal would backtracking on the demilitarization of Sinai send to the Palestinians?
If the treaty with Egypt needs to be gutted in order to save it, something may be terribly wrong with the underlying land-for-peace approach.