Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Egypt and Israel test historic Sinai treaty

The Israelis have lived with danger and threat for their entire existence. Depending on how far back their history is traced, talk of their existence could imply over half a century or even thousands of years. During that time Israel has come under attack almost constantly, by nation-states and stateless actors.

Israel has had to contend with these issues largely by itself and has developed an infamously thick-skin when it comes to international criticism. The steps Jerusalem takes in protecting its people are sometimes harsh and careless, but they are always swift and their retribution is complete. What can drag on over decades between other countries and involve huge national resources is completed, impressively, by a tiny state roughly double the size of New Zealand.

This last year has been a relatively peaceful period for Israel. During the so-called “Arab Spring”, many of its traditional enemies such as Egypt have been distracted by their own domestic politics, and have put aside their differences with Jerusalem for the time-being.

The United States, long a generous patron of Israel, has itself begun the natural process of shifting away from Jerusalem and is relying less on the state as a critical strategic ally in the region. Israel was an important ally for the U.S. during the Cold War as it was the only true democratic government in the Middle East and Levant.

To contain the Soviets and deny the deployment of Russian military hardware and energy extraction, Israel played a critical role for the West. Protection of Israel was in U.S. interests therefore military hardware and intelligence sharing became the norm. Israel was almost overrun on a few occasions by its Arab neighbours, so the economic and military assistance from Washington helped Israel ensure such an existential catastrophe could not happen in the future.

When the Berlin Wall fell, Israel began to lose its relevance for the United States. It has taken many years to see this play out, but as larger and more natural regional hegemons such as Turkey develop extremely quickly Washington is changing its focus away from Israel. The small state is now almost entirely self-sufficient and this current period of calm seems to be continuing.

Rockets have still been fired into Israel from the Palestinian territories and from Lebanon, but these crude weapons are not causing the same damage as in years past. Jerusalem has used the quiet regional situation to finish the development of an indigenous missile-defence shield named Iron Dome. This expensive system has already proven itself in distress by protecting Israeli cities from militant-launched Qassam rockets and other crude devices.

Because of the tranquillity Jerusalem has its eyes on the larger region. Israel has rarely had the opportunity to assess the region’s political trajectory without having to divide their attention at home. The political movements in Iran and their on-going nuclear program appear to be something of an obsession for Jerusalem.

Stories seem appear each month breathlessly hinting at the latest covert action undertaken against Tehran by Israeli intelligence. Scientists and military members from Iran become sudden victims of bombings or suspicious accidents, sometimes as far away as Europe and East Asia. The Palestinians and Lebanese militants have been unable to keep any momentum in striking Israel recently, perhaps because their regional Arab and Persian patrons are busy maintaining their interests elsewhere. Israel would like to keep it that way for as long as possible, but the calm in Israel’s near-abroad could be about to change.

Peace with Egypt, the most important of Israel’s neighbours, is critical for the survivability of the Jewish state. Whether Israel perpetuates or perishes depends in a large part on Egypt. Since Mubarak was ousted in what can most closely be described as a military coup, the country has fluctuated between chaos and a tentative, democratic stability. The military regime, of which Mubarak was host, managed skilfully to retain much of their power but the democratically elected Egyptian government is increasing its grip on Cairo.

Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s (MB) electoral candidate and eventual winner of the June elections, made it clear that he intended to honour the treaties with Israel when he took office. As odious as the Mubarak leadership may have been, the Israelis knew they could trust him to uphold such treaties as the 1978 Camp David Accords. Both countries relied on a binding non-aggression pact for peace, although Egypt would benefit more today from such a treaty than would a more militarily robust and technologically advanced Israel.

However, the turmoil in Egypt through 2011 and 2012 did worry Jerusalem. Mubarak was a known entity, he was predictable and Israel knew what strings it needed to tug in any discussions. The Muslim Brotherhood of 2011 offered less room for forecasting. The MB had a poor reputation for both militancy and radical Islamism, a volatile mix that has plagued the region for many years. Their political wing was untested and Jerusalem became increasingly nervous as it was clear this group would win the Egyptian elections. A large section of Egypt has been unhappy with the current agreements between Cairo and Jerusalem for many years, and they’re vote went largely to the MB in June.

Morsi initially allayed Israeli fears of a destabilisation in Egypt-Israel affairs because he did not inherit a clear supreme control from the military regime. This is how the military skilfully designed the new government to be, Morsi’s power was diluted and a fresh constitution not completed yet will likely reflect this.

But in a remarkable power play August 14, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi ordered five top members of the Egyptian military to resign while announcing the abrogation of procedures by the military to restrict his power. Currently the Egyptian military has not opposed Morsi’s moves, which were in part a response to the military’s failures around the recent killings of 16 Egyptian soldiers during terrorist violence in the Sinai Peninsula on August 5. Morsi's actions to gain greater power from the military probably surpass his legal authority, and the Egyptian Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) probably had control over the dismissals anyway. 

As the MB moves to gain greater political control in Cairo, Morsi is turning his sights on Israel and the Sinai, overtly suggesting August 13 that he will revise the 1978 Camp David accords. This treaty presently makes it illegal for Egypt to position certain troop concentrations on the Sinai Peninsula especially within 30 kilometres of Israel. As a strategic buffer offering valuable time and early warning for each nation, the Sinai Peninsula has been effectively off-limits for decades. Reviewing the accords would certainly help Morsi and the MB at home, but would strain the Egypt-Israel relationship.

If Egypt is going to deal with an increase in militancy in the Sinai Peninsula then it will need to position larger concentrations of troops there. Currently it is unable to do this with the present structure of the Camp David accords. During 2011 Egyptian military equipment was allowed into the Sinai buffer zone, but the necessary amounts for control are not present. Morsi needs to discuss treaty changes with Israel if the Peninsula is to be cleaned up. Such a discussion, if undertaken by Morsi, will offer him significant leverage over the military junta but both the SCAF and Egyptian presidency must work together.

Egypt badly needs to kick-start its economy following the very disruptive demonstrations. It has dropped almost 22 billion dollars of foreign reserves since before 2011, gaining only a fraction of this back with donations from some Gulf States. Cairo has relied on U.S. financial aid to survive (a central part of the Camp David accords) and Morsi’s plan to revise the Camp David accords is probably aiming to entice Washington to restart that flow of aid once more.

The MB is trying to attain more control over Cairo by dealing with Israel and the United States directly, sidestepping the military council (SCAF). But there are deeper reasons for Morsi’s plans with the accord. The Egyptian populace have felt the treaty was against their interests from the start. As sensitive as the issue of nullifying the military’s tight grip on power might be, the inequality Egyptians feel compared with Israel stings more. Regaining sovereign control over the Sinai would be a huge boost to both Morsi’s ratings and to ordinary Egyptians.

It’s unlikely the MB wish to cancel the treaty altogether, doing so would raise tensions with Israel unnecessarily in a sensitive government transition period. But the Sinai issue is treated as strategic for both Israel and Egypt alike, so this will catch the attention of leaders in Jerusalem. The two countries are facing an uncertain decade ahead where many geopolitical fractures will occur, some occurring already. Even though more Egyptian troops in the Sinai may not immediately threaten Israel, and they might just solve the shared Egyptian-Israeli problem of militancy in the Sinai, it could set a dangerous precedence of free military movement on the peninsula once again.

The Muslim Brotherhood will use the Sinai as a three-way lever. It will draw Washington back into aid donations, challenge the military’s rule on foreign affairs and create an affirmative climate for the MB amongst their constituency. It could be that the democratically elected government in Cairo is dangerously awakening sleeping Sinai dogs, but their political manoeuvring is untested as yet and could well prove competent and ultimately benign.  Israel, jumpy as it might be, will watch Morsi’s movements closely even if he is on a short leash.

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