The Sinai Peninsula: Israel’s Foremost Front in Relationship with the New Egypt

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Hassan Ahmadian
Ph.D. Candidate, University of Tehran and Expert on Middle East Issues

During the second half of August 2012, the Egyptian army’s armored forces along with the conspicuous logistic support of air force and army set off from Suez Canal towards the eastern part of the Sinai Peninsula and Israel’s borders. The main cause for the military moves of Egypt’s armed forces is the increase in operational capabilities and military power of Salafist-atheist forces, which have a long record of activity in Egypt, and this time have taken advantage of Egypt’s lack of sovereign control over the Sinai region and the security vacuum stemming from the 25 January revolution and have expanded their power base. The necessity of confrontation between the new Egyptian regime and the growing al-Qaeda terrorism in the Sinai region is a fact that all sides, including Israel and the United States are aware of, and it is also clear that Egypt will not be able to effectively suppress this security threat without mobilizing more forces and acting decisively. However, Israeli officials, particularly Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak and its media have seriously expressed concern over this action by the Egyptian government. Why? Such an issue can be explained in a number of respects.

First of all, the Egyptian military forces had left the Sinai Peninsula since 1967, and the 1973 war had only led to the return of small number of Egyptian forces into the region; forces which were under the siege of Israeli forces. Nevertheless, the peace between Israel and Egypt which as a consequence of Camp David Accords, finally had led to the retreat of the Israeli forces from the Sinai region in 1982, only authorized the return of a limited number of Egyptian forces to the region. According to the framework of this peace, the Sinai Peninsula was divided into three parts and the international borders between Egypt and Palestine went under international supervision. Based on this division, Egypt was merely allowed to deploy security and police force in this region in order to provide security and was banned from using military forces, especially armored forces and heavy weapons in Sinai; only some solutions were anticipated for exceptional circumstances which were rather equivocal and did clearly determine under what conditions and with what backgrounds Egypt was authorized to deploy its military forces to the region near Israel’s borders. The necessity of coordinating any single move outside the existing agreements between Egypt and Israel was the only emphasized point. Now, for the first time after the time of this established peace between these two countries, Israel sees the Egyptian military forces armed with tanks and armored personnel carriers near its borders. This situation, considering the developments in Syria and the reservations involving Israeli northern front (Hezbollah) in the light of these developments seriously concerns Israel. Additionally, one should not turn a blind eye at the protests inside Israel and the probability of the launch of Third Intifada. These facts in total make Israel to encounter a multifaceted security challenges. Thus, the military moves of the Egyptian army would not turn out much concerning in different circumstances.

The Second point which should be discussed in relation to what already said, is that for the first time since the war in 1973, Egypt deployed military forces to the Sinai region, an act from which it was banned according to the peace agreement, and the point is that this move was made without coordination with Israel. This is while in Tel Aviv’s eye, Egypt should have at least made the necessary coordination with Israel in this regard. In spite of Cairo’s justified action with regards to the increasing power of centrifugal forces in the Sinai Peninsula, Tel Aviv views such a move as an action which can lead to extended moves in the future particularly if developments such as the Israel-Gaza war in 2008-2009 occur. In this view, ignoring coordination with Israel in terms of its security understanding is very unsettling.

The third point which cannot be easily overlooked is that despite the Israeli official and media objections against Egypt’s move and Washington’s expressed concerns – that were uttered in the face of the implicit support of the US Department of State’s spokesperson Victoria Nuland  from Egypt’s counter-terrorist measures in the Sinai region – Egypt left the issue unattended for three days before its first official contact with Israel, and it was on 24 August that the Egyptian Defence Minister contacted Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak by telephone and assured him of Cairo’s intentions in deploying military forces to the Sinai region. This issue should be compared to the fact that during Mubarak presidency every Egyptian move in the Sinai region – which never reached military deployment level – was made in complete coordination with Israel and many times, because of its opposition Cairo avoided any counter-terrorism activities in the Sinai Peninsula.

These developments indicate that Israel is facing new realities in the Sinai region; realities with which it cannot get along as before. The Egyptian President, who issued the order of military forces deployment to the Sinai Peninsula personally, first avoided any reaction to Israel’s objections, and eventually only made a declaration that the objective for deploying forces to Sinai has been countering terrorism. This fact was quite clear, however, what is blurred for the Israelis and the West is that whether this move will end when the uttered objective is accomplished and the Egyptian military forces will retreat to the western side of the Suez Canal afterwards, and whether in future they should expect similar moves or even extended ones or not.

One of the major objections the Egyptian Islamist groups raised against the former regime in Egypt was its behavior towards Israel and particularly the regime’s surrender of Egypt’s total sovereignty over the Sinai Peninsula. Today, by the presidency of Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood which is the pioneer of Islamist movement in Egypt, has gained considerable power and Egyptian-Israeli relationship management – although it can be affected by various components – is eventually in Muslim Brotherhood’s hands. Israel’s major concern, which is paradoxically also a source of concern for Muslim Brotherhood, is emanating from the same fact. This Islamist group, with its anti-Israel records, is now in power and despite all the assurances it has offered about observing international agreements, now makes such an unprecedented move. This issue has also become a matter of concern for Muslim Brotherhood, since on the one hand they have get great credit due to their anti-Israel history in Egypt and other Islamic countries and are now in power in four Islamic countries, on the other hand, the transformation from opposition to the ruling power make them face the political and international realities which put them in complicated economic, security, cultural and social situation inherited from Mubarak time; realities that are in no way an incentive for them to follow their old anti-Israel behavior – at least not under the current circumstances – unless the strategy of the new regime in Egypt has become covering one crisis with another crisis.

Key Words: Sinai Peninsula, Israel, New Egypt, Al-Qaeda Terrorism, Salafist-Atheist Forces, Camp David Accords, Military Deployment, Muslim Brotherhood,  Ahmadian 

More By Hassan Ahmadian:

*Turkey – Saudi Arabia – Egypt Regional Triangle in the Offing:

*Implications of Bandar Bin Sultan’s Return to Power:

*Egyptian Army and the Second Republic: 

طراحی و توسعه آگاه‌سیستم