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With Friends Like Egypt

March 18, 2007
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Only two Arab nations have signed full peace treaties with the Jewish state: Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994. After the Egypt–Israel peace agreement was signed, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was killed for his peacemaking efforts while attending a military parade in 1981. Now, after 28 years, is Egypt’s relationship with Israel a model of peace for other Arab nations to follow?

The Dollars and “Sense” of Peace
The true benefits of the Egypt–Israel peace treaty have been economic more than anything else. Both countries now enjoy tax-free trade with the United States through special Qualifying Industrial Zones (QIZs) that have been established in Egypt. Thus, goods manufactured in Egyptian QIZs with input from Israel enjoy duty-free access to US markets. Similar trade zones exist in Jordan.

Each year, thousands of Israeli tourists flock to the Sinai for vacation, and Christian pilgrims make their way to the St. Catherine Monastery and Mount Sinai. However, the number of those tourists who continue on across the Suez Canal into the main part of Egypt is much lower, and the number of Egyptians who come to Israel for vacation is almost nonexistent. Most of the Egyptian traffic through Israel is that of persons or goods transiting across to nearby Jordan.

Although technical agreements have been reached in several other trade areas, such as water and natural gas, the living part of the peace agreement leaves much to be desired. While the governments maintain formal relations, the populations themselves have little interaction with each other, thus allowing many old feelings of mistrust and suspicion to linger.

Weapons Smuggling
The peace treaty clearly defines the number and type of armed forces that each nation may maintain with each of four defined zones, and there is a permanent UN presence on the ground to monitor this. Because of these military limitations, the threat of armed conflict between the two states is low, and therefore much of the Egypt–Israel border in the Sinai has no fence, but is monitored through human and electronic means instead.

Smugglers have taken advantage of the situation along the border to bring guns, ammunition, and explosives to terrorists in Gaza. Human trafficking is also a profitable business, with smugglers bringing women across to work as prostitutes. Refugees from Sudan cross seeking asylum, and others come looking for work. The Israeli Border Police catch a great many of those that cross the border illegally, but for the ones that slip past, it is impossible to know if their motives are criminal, terror related, or other. There have even been documented cases of Egyptian police and Israeli soldiers helping smugglers sneak into Israel. Israeli Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter recently said, “There is no doubt that Egypt is not doing enough. I am sure that if Egypt decides to block this flow of smuggling, they can do it, 100%.”

However, the smuggling business is lucrative, and Egypt won’t make serious efforts to stop it so long as weapons are only passing through. Only when those weapons and explosives are used in Egypt, such as in the bombings in Sharm El-Sheikh and Taba, or if they cross the Suez and threaten the regime, will the Egyptian security services become fully engaged.

Knesset (Parliament) Member Yuval Steinitz (Likud), former head of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, is recognized by politicians and defense experts alike as one of the premier strategic thinkers in Israel today. A proponent of the Disengagement Plan, Steinitz has repeatedly said that leaving the thin strip of land between Gaza and Egypt, known as the Philadelphi Corridor, was a great mistake. He said that the number of guns, rockets, and amount of ammunition that have been smuggled into Gaza from Egypt has increased exponentially since the disengagement. Additionally, Steinitz said, terrorists have left Gaza for training in Iran and other centers of terror, bringing that expert knowledge back with them to Gaza.

Steinitz also compared the massive buildup in Gaza to Hizbullah since the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000. He referred to the literary technique known as Chekhov’s gun, which says, “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one, it should be fired. Otherwise, don’t put it there.” In Lebanon, the Israel Defense Forces watched for years as Iran and Syria worked to build up Hizbullah, and sure enough those same missiles came raining down on Israel last summer. Now, Israel is again watching as the terrorists in Gaza are armed by weapons flowing from Egypt, weapons, such as anti-aircraft missiles, that they previously couldn’t acquire when Israel was present in Gaza. Steinitz is calling for a massive Israeli military operation into the Gaza Strip now in order to eliminate terror cells, seize weapons, and gather intelligence on other terrorists and their plans.

The Palestinians as Pawns
Egypt has expended a lot of time and energy in the past several years to position itself as a major player in the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, and the reasons for this are twofold. First, the rise to power of the religious fundamentalist terror group Hamas on their border in Gaza has the secular state of Egypt worried. The Muslim Brotherhood has long been a threat to secularism in Egypt, whose leaders routinely and violently suppress the outlawed group. Peace, or at least some kind of stability, is therefore in Egypt’s interest if it wants to reduce the influence of groups like Hamas upon the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic extremists in Egypt. Egypt is, therefore, more worried about Hamas’s religious fundamentalism than Hamas’s resistance to “occupation.”

Second, Egypt is looking to regain the prestige that it enjoyed during the days of Gamal Nasser. Right now, the Arab world is lacking a strong leader, having instead to rely on Ahmadinejad, a Persian, to unite a greater pan-Muslim community. The Arab–Israeli conflict consumes every facet of the “Arab street,” and Ahmadinejad has risen in power and popularity across the greater Islamic world by pursuing nuclear weapons and promising to “wipe Israel off the map.” Egypt, on the other hand, has a peace treaty with Israel, and its prestige can, therefore, only be restored if it becomes the one who finally oversees a breakthrough in the peace process.

Certainly for issues regarding Gaza, Egypt has become the “go-to” nation for the Palestinians. Egyptian Chief of Intelligence General Omar Suleiman has been to the Gaza Strip on a number of occasions in the last several years in efforts to arrange cease-fires, not only between the terrorists and Israel, but sometimes between the different Palestinian factions as well. The Egyptians are also deeply involved in back-door talks between Israel and Hamas terrorists in Gaza, trying to work out a prisoner exchange deal that would free some 1,400 Palestinian terrorists in Israeli jails for the kidnapped IDF soldier Cpl. Gilad Shalit.

Egypt attempts to maintain a fine balance as a mediator in the promotion of peace with the Palestinians, while at the same time coming out strong in the Arab world with its stance and rhetoric against Israel. An example of that tough rhetoric are the words of Egyptian parliamentarian Mohammed El-Katatny (from President Hosni Mubarak’s own party), who, when referring to the Israeli repair work outside the Temple Mount complex, said, “That cursed Israel is trying to destroy Al-Aqsa Mosque… Nothing will work with Israel except for a nuclear bomb that wipes it out of existence.”

Joining the Club
Egypt has recently announced its intention to join the all-important space and nuclear clubs. In the space field, Egypt already has two satellites for TV broadcasts and has announced the launch sometime this year of its first imaging satellite, the Egyptsat 1. The satellite will carry an electro-optical camera capable of transmitting black-and-white images back to earth, and it is widely believed by many Israeli security analysts that it will be used for the purpose of gathering intelligence on Israel and Egypt’s other neighbors.

Late last year, Mubarak announced that Egypt would build nuclear reactors to meet some of its energy needs. Mubarak answered skeptics of the announcement by saying that there was no comparison between Egypt and Iran, since Iran has a nuclear weapons program and Egypt’s intent is strictly for peaceful purposes. Egypt has also consistently called for a nuclear-free Middle East, a move that almost all Arab states support and is seen as targeting Israel’s suspected nuclear arsenal estimated at several hundred bombs.

The Key to Peace
The peace treaty is of great strategic importance to Israel, as it has silenced the guns on the Egyptian front, but it has clearly failed to foster the peace that even old adversaries can achieve, as evidenced by France, Britain, and Germany. Trade between the two nations has certainly increased, but not exactly flourished. If peace between Israel and Egypt is to truly take hold, then the cultures of the two peoples have to be engaged and exchanged. It is only by getting to know and understand each other that the culture of hate and mistrust on both sides will begin to be erased. However, trying to promote the Jewish state to an ever radicalizing Arab and Islamic world might be a tough sell.

By Will King, Correspondent, Israel Mosaic Radio

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