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In Gaza, Egypt and Israel are Interdependent
Last uploaded : Tuesday 20th Sep 2005 at 01:19
Contributed by : Abdel Monem Said


Cairo -

In the past quarter of a century, Egyptian foreign and national security policies have revolved around four pillars: Egyptian-American strategic relations, the Egyptian-Saudi regional alliance, Egyptian-European economic interactions and the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. Egyptian efforts in Gaza should be understood with reference to this last pillar.

The four-year-long Palestinian intifada and Israel's excessive response to it by reoccupying Palestinian territories have threatened Egyptian national security interests in diverse ways. First, the intifada and the Israeli response rendered the Egyptian project of extending peace with Israel to the rest of the region unattainable. This in turn put heavy pressures on Egypt's standing in the Arab world and the Egyptian regional role in the Middle East. Second, the events of the Palestinian-Israeli confrontation created a fertile breeding ground for radical Islamic movements that considered Cairo one of their main targets.

Third, the conflict in Gaza created pressures on Egypt's borders with Israel and Gaza through the infiltration of drugs, prostitution, illegal emigration, organized crime and finally arms. Tunnels dug beneath Egypt's borders have exceeded the capabilities of local Egyptian defence forces. And fourth, Israel has violated the peace treaty with Egypt through the introduction into area D of heavy weapons - tanks and artillery - that are prohibited under its clauses. If these violations continue, the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty will be subject to pressures that are difficult to predict or anticipate. In the history of the Middle East, uncertainty has always promised calamity.

Active Egyptian efforts became necessary in order to avoid crises and create opportunities. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan from Gaza was an initiative designed to deal with the Israeli security dilemma, the complexities of Israeli domestic politics, and Israel's relations with countries like the United States and Europe that judged the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to be negatively affecting the global war against terror. From Cairo's point of view, the Sharon plan was an opportunity that should not be missed. Insofar as Sharon is the father of the Israeli settlement movement and a promoter of greater Israel, his plan provided grounds for a new evaluation of the Israeli prime minister by Egypt; President Hosni Mubarak personally described the Israeli leader as "a man of peace."

What was significant about the Sharon plan was that it not only offered a way to deal with Israeli security dilemmas - it also offered an opportunity to engage Egypt's security problems. The Egyptian-Israeli security interdependence that commenced with the peace treaty in 1979 has gained new dimensions. Both countries have come to realize that the security of Egypt's border with Gaza is a shared interest. To deal with the situation on the border, political and security measures were needed on the Palestinian, Israeli, regional, and international fronts.

The first move by Cairo was to help moderates among the Palestinians win the day against the radicals. The death of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, the election of Mahmoud Abbas as his successor, the fatigue generated by the intifada, and the shift in the Palestinian mood against the "militarization of the intifada" - all made possible the Egyptian appeal for calm and a cease-fire. Cairo put its prestige on the line and succeeded in mediating among the Palestinian forces and persuading them to freeze their military attacks against Israel and against one another.

The second move was to improve Egyptian-Israeli relations so as to have better access to Israeli political and security circles and help Sharon push his plan through a divided and sceptical Israeli public. The return of the Egyptian ambassador to Israel, the release of Azzam Azzam from Egyptian prison, the Qualified Industrial Zones trade deal, and the Egyptian deal to supply gas to Israel have spread new warmth in a relationship that fell below freezing point during the years of Palestinian-Israeli violence.

Egypt's third move was to ensure international and regional support for the initiative, just as the U.S., Europe and the rest of the Quartet were preparing to offer financial and political support to the new and fragile Palestinian Authority leadership.

However, political moves were not sufficient to deal with a shaky security situation. Part of the problem on the Egyptian-Palestinian-Israeli borders has been the insufficiency of forces equipped to deal with highly determined and motivated movements. The thin presence of Egyptian forces in area C in Sinai and of Israeli forces in area D created a vacuum that needed to be filled. Alongside reluctance to tamper with the military requirements of the peace treaty, both sides agreed that security interdependence requires cooperative measures - hence the agreement to upgrade Egyptian forces in area C by 750 well-armed soldiers who would seal the border and make possible implementation of the Sharon plan.

It is one of the ironies of history that Israel, which worked very hard to constrain Egypt's forces in Sinai, agreed in the present context on the consolidation of these forces. This bespeaks a change in the Middle East that bears watching.

* Abdel Monem Said is the director of the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons-international.org, an online newsletter.

Source: The Daily Star, September 12, 2005.

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Distributed by the Common Ground News Service.

Copyright permission has been obtained for this article.


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