The scheme for integrating Egypt into an Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and a small part of the West Bank has potential strategic consequences for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in its broadest sense.
First, and at the risk of stating the obvious, Egypt is being invited into Gaza because both Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization/Palestinian Authority have failed to restore security. We have known this for years regarding the PLO/PA; now we have an implicit admission from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that his most fundamental election promise to the Israeli public cannot be fulfilled by Israel alone. Given the chaotic nature of life in the West Bank and Gaza and the acute absence of serious leadership, it is possible that an Egyptian (or some alternative third party) presence will be required there for a long time to come. Thus this can be seen as the end of the "unilateral" nature of Sharon's plan and the possible vanguard of the "internationalization" of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is a long-term Palestinian goal, designed to even the balance of forces with Israel. On the other hand, Egyptian "minders" may not be exactly what Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat had in mind.
Egypt, which is hardly a paragon of human rights and civil society, can do certain unpleasant things in and around Gaza that Israel cannot get away with internationally. For example, once Egypt has bolstered its forces on its side of the Rafah border with Gaza, it will not hesitate--indeed, fully intends--to erase hundreds of houses on the Egyptian side and move their residents, who are Palestinians, if this becomes necessary to stop smuggling operations via tunnels. Of course, we all should have learned by now that the mass violation of Palestinian human rights is not necessarily a way to advance the cause of peace and stability.
Internationalization of the conflict is not the only potential strategic disadvantage for Israel. After all, for the past 56 years Israel has sought demilitarization arrangements in the Sinai that create the greatest possible distance between its forces and the Egyptian Army. This imperative can be traced all the way back to the trauma caused by the Egyptian offensive in 1948, which sought to drive up the coast to Tel Aviv and to cut off the Negev by linking up to Jordanian forces in Hebron. Has Israel, seeking an ally to help contain Islamic radicalism in Gaza, begun to reverse this policy?
True, the current plan does not call for more than a symbolic change in the Egyptian force deployment--a reinforced and higher quality unit in Egyptian Rafah and a handful of senior military advisers in Gaza. But it leaves at least some Israeli military thinkers worried. For several years they have been sounding the alarm regarding Egypt's overall military buildup. At a minimum, there is a real danger that Egypt's enhanced presence in and around Gaza could lead to military or political friction with Israel.
Incidentally, Egyptian advisers will apparently be seconded to the West Bank as well, a territory usually assumed, for obvious historic and geographic reasons, to come under Jordanian influence. This is liable to have a negative effect on the Israeli-Jordanian strategic relationship.
To be sure, both Egyptian and Jordanian military and police instructors have been deployed in recent years and months in Gaza and Jericho, under the aegis of the CIA, in a thus-far abortive effort to rehabilitate Palestinian security forces. But this is different: this is Egypt acting in its own right; this may require changes in the Israel-Egypt peace treaty. And most significantly, this move appears to reflect a genuine change in the Egyptian assessment of events in Gaza. The prospect of a Hamas-ruled Palestinian mini-state there poses a potential danger to Egypt's own interests. And the promise of Egyptian involvement in Gaza is already helping Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak rebuff US post-9/11 pressures to carry out internal democratic reforms.
Of course, none of this is a done deal. Egypt is wary of having its small military contingent in Gaza or the West Bank caught in the crossfire between Israelis and Palestinians. Hence it has a host of conditions: a ceasefire observed by both sides, agreement by Arafat to delegate authority for the restructuring of the Palestinian security establishment, Israeli readiness to reciprocate by allowing Arafat to move to Gaza, eventual Israeli withdrawal from the Philadelphi road, safe passage between Gaza and the West Bank.
Arafat does not want to delegate his authority to the Egyptians and to Muhammad Dahlan or Nasser Yusuf, both former Palestinian security chiefs, and Sharon does not want to let Arafat out of his compound in Ramallah. Sharon and Arafat may each be hoping that the other will torpedo the deal. Nor is Sharon's ability to "deliver" an operational disengagement package a given, in view of the political complications and his own difficulty in enunciating a convincing rationale for dismantling the settlements he once built.
The Egyptians want to begin in mid-June by sending some 30 security officials to Gaza and 30 to the West Bank. If it works, their involvement could signal a major reduction in the intensity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But if it doesn't, it could mean a further expansion of regional tensions as a result of that conflict.
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies and a former senior adviser to PM Ehud Barak.
The Egyptian role in the Israeli plan to disengage from the Gaza Strip is one of two major modifications Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon introduced after first failing to gain the support of his own party for his disengagement plan. The other is the gradualism whereby this plan is supposed to be implemented in several phases. Most recently, Sharon decided to have his cabinet vote on each phase separately. From a Palestinian point of view, this gradualism is an additional problem with a plan that never excited the Palestinians for the following reasons: it does not fit within the roadmap, is not based on international law, will not improve the situation in the West Bank, and does not give the impression that it is a step toward the eventual end of the occupation.
The proposed Egyptian role in this modified plan is perceived positively by the Palestinian leadership, which has traditionally had good relations with Egypt, but it is controversial among the Palestinian public. The Egyptian role is delicate, because it is based on two objectives: (1) trying to satisfy Israel's security needs on the Gaza-Egypt border, and (2) helping to improve Palestinian security by restructuring, training, and rehabilitating the Palestinian security forces in Gaza to enable the Palestinian side to fulfill its commitments in the first phase of the roadmap.
In addition to the plan that Egypt discussed with the Palestinian side, the Egyptians also presented certain demands to the Israeli side: the necessity of a full and complete withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and an end to Israeli hostilities and violence against Palestinians, including assassinations, incursions, home demolitions, and so on. In addition, Egypt is also requiring that Israel ease measures in the West Bank, especially those related to Palestinian daily life, such as restrictions on movement and other Israeli measures considered by the Palestinians and the international community as illegal collective punishment.
As a result of these objectives and requirements, the success or failure of the Egyptian intervention will depend on the Egyptians' ability to get the two sides to deliver their commitments simultaneously. The main reason for the failure of previous attempts--Zinni, Tenet, and the Mitchell commission--was that Israel always succeeded in convincing the American mediators to accept a sequential rather than simultaneous approach. If Israel started by withdrawing, dismantling some settlements and ceasing to expand others, ending the policy of restricting Palestinian movement, and continuing to fulfill other requirements of the roadmap, then the Palestinians--who remain ready to fulfill their corresponding obligations to the roadmap--would be able to do so simultaneously. However, if the Palestinians are expected yet again to start first, while Israel continues its usual practices (including assassinations, home demolitions, movement restrictions and settlement expansion), then history will repeat itself yet again, and we will find ourselves further embroiled in the continuing cycle of violence.
The main difficulty Egypt will face in this role is the fact that internal Israeli politics are not conducive to any positive change. The developments in Israel regarding Sharon's plan showed everybody that the current Israeli political elite in power is not mature enough to move forward on the basis of international law as embodied in the roadmap. For this reason, a continuous international role, especially by the United States--the only country that can influence Israel--is a necessary component for success.
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org. He is minister of labor in the Palestinian Authority cabinet and has served for many years as a political analyst and media contact.
Egypt's involvement in the search for a way out of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis is growing. Egyptian interest in the disengagement plan initiated by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has not faltered despite the bitter political struggle over the plan within the Israeli government. Nor did it diminish even when Palestinian spokespersons objected to the pressures exercised by their Egyptian ally on the Palestinian leadership and to Egypt's undisguised interference in the internal affairs of the Palestinian Authority.
The angry political discussion taking place in Israel between the pro and anti-disengagement camps is seen by Cairo as an internal Israeli affair. Of course, Egypt's involvement is not intended to aid the government of Israel, and certainly not its head. Sharon was and is anathema to most of the Egyptian public and its leaders.
Rather, Egypt's growing involvement is a direct consequence of the assessment of the government of President Husni Mubarak concerning the grave Middle East situation generated by both the turmoil in Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation. The two crises feed upon one another, and together nourish regional instability. The Israeli-Palestinian crisis has become brutal, and its prolongation increasingly threatens the vital national interests of additional Arab states--first and foremost Egypt and Jordan, which border on the conflict. Daily reports of heavy Palestinian casualties have a cumulative effect on Egyptian public opinion. Anger directed at Israel, as well as at United States activities in Iraq, frequently also takes the form of sharp criticism of the neglect exercised by the Egyptian authorities. This emanates today not only from the traditional opposition, but from spokespersons identified with the Egyptian public mainstream.
Under a heavy screen of diplomatic niceties, the Egyptian leadership believes that the Bush administration's Middle East policies are at fault, and may even be exacerbating the situation. But the complex nature of the ties between the two countries dictates caution on the part of the Mubarak government, in order to avoid a crisis in its relationship with Washington. Cairo well appreciates that this relationship is also being tested. Hence its involvement in advancing an Israeli-Palestinian settlement is part and parcel of Egypt's overall policy toward the only superpower.
Egypt's role at this stage is also facilitated by the unique approach it has taken to the Palestinian Authority since the crisis began in the fall of 2000. For years Egypt consistently and successfully cultivated its status as patron of the PA and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. It took upon itself a variety of tasks at various stages of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Not everyone was happy with the Egyptian performance. Sharp criticism, rarely justified, emanated from both Israel and the US, alleging that Egypt avoided playing a significant role in ending the conflict, or even thwarted the process. (The critics ignored the fact that neither Israel nor the US offered the Mubarak government a role that would correspond with Egypt's political agenda.) Jerusalem and Washington argued that Egypt's decision not to exercise its full influence on the Palestinian leadership was one of the causes of the failure of final status negotiations. Egypt rebuffed these accusations, and maintained a constant dialogue with Arafat and his advisers, even as Israel and the US claimed that the Palestinian leader was no longer relevant and constituted an obstacle to peace.
True, on a number of issues Egypt took issue with the Palestinian leadership. Mubarak and his emissaries have called for changes in the PA, including a decentralization of the authority held by President Arafat. But the two actors remain in agreement regarding the strategic objective of a two-state solution along the June 4, 1967 borders. The Egyptian leadership played the "Arafat card" deftly; hence it now has the opportunity to play an instrumental role in the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.
The decision to increase its involvement in the conflict undoubtedly strengthens the standing of the Mubarak regime as a force for moderation and stability in the otherwise threateningly unstable Middle East. The cultivation of this image, along with the commitment to peace with Israel, remains a constant guarantee for the ongoing flow of intensive and vital external aid to Egypt. But this was not an easy decision for the authorities in Cairo. There is considerable concern lest Egyptian forces in Gaza be drawn into the eye of the storm and sustain casualties. On the other hand, public opinion is liable to regard a limited Egyptian force in the Gaza Strip as a vanguard; if the violence there continues, this could strengthen the voices of those who have already demanded that a more significant force be dispatched to protect the Palestinians--thereby possibly precipitating the kind of unprecedented crisis with Israel that Egypt has successfully avoided over the years.
In the complex reality of today's Middle East, any new initiative can be influenced by an infinite number of factors. Will Sharon's disengagement plan be carried out in the end? Will it indeed generate a renewal of the political process, or, God forbid, escalate the conflict? Will the leaders of the two belligerent sides, and particularly Arafat, contribute to stabilizing the situation? Only the answers to these and additional questions will tell us the nature of the local and regional ramifications of the unprecedented Egyptian involvement in seeking a solution.
Yoram Meital lectures in the Department of Middle East Studies at Ben Gurion University in the Negev. He has just published (in Hebrew) Peace in Tatters: Israel, the Palestinians and the Middle East (Jerusalem, Carmel).
Despite its breaking the Arab consensus to sign the first peace treaty with Israel approximately 25 years ago, Egypt has gained the deep confidence of the Palestinian leadership. Consequently, Egypt has assumed a central role in the search for a settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The Palestinians' deep-rooted belief that their Egyptian partner has no hidden interests in Palestine has consolidated their trust in Egypt. Furthermore, Egyptian support for the Palestinian cause is firm and springs from profound and genuine relationships that transcend considerations of present unstable interests. In contrast, even though Egypt was the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel, successive Israeli governments have complained about the coldness of the peace with Egypt and the Egyptian bias towards the Palestinians and Palestinian cause.
Despite having always been suspicious of the traditional Egyptian role regarding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon now wants to rely on Egypt, particularly with respect to security aspects, to implement his unilateral plan for gradual withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. In this respect, it appears that Egypt is responsive to the Israeli proposal, leading us to the main problems raised within this context: What are the motives behind Sharon's shift in position to rely on Egypt to implement his plan? Why would Egypt respond to the Israeli demand? Does such a response express a change in the traditional Egyptian approach toward the Palestinian cause and the resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict?
Five motives behind Sharon's pursuit for a central Egyptian security role in the Gaza Strip can be recalled. First, Sharon became aware that the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, in order to be acceptable on Palestinian, regional, and international levels, must ultimately be completed and accompanied by serious and significant measures taken by Israel in the West Bank. Furthermore, in order to gain credibility, Israel must relinquish its control over the borders separating the Gaza Strip from Egypt. Such a move would imply a kind of Palestinian sovereignty in the Gaza Strip that could suggest that a foundation towards establishing a Palestinian state exists.
Second, Sharon is expressing the stance of a broad Israeli majority that no longer trusts transferring the responsibility of security within the Palestinian territories to the Palestinian Authority. Within this context, Israel is obliged to rely on a third party that it deems more reliable, thus providing an opening for Egypt as a dependable substitute.
Third, according to Sharon, reliance on Egypt with respect to the security of the Gaza Strip increases the confidence of all the Israeli politicians who are hesitant to support his plan. Indeed, Egypt is a country that has abided by its commitment to treaties and agreements. Broad Israeli opposition to Sharon's plan necessitates his using all means to ease the public's mind and facilitate the process.
Fourth, it would be favorable for Sharon to have Egyptian involvement in his plan due to the confidence Egypt inspires in the Palestinian leadership. As such, Egypt will be able to exert "positive" pressure on the Palestinians to accept and implement the plan. Finally, Egypt's involvement in assuming the security role in the Gaza Strip will serve as a precedent and a reference for a possible future Jordanian security role in the West Bank. Attaining advance security guarantees is necessary for Sharon and Israel in order to be able to proclaim a Palestinian state, which will be required to settle the Palestinian/Arab-Israel conflict.
For its part, Egypt appears inclined to participate in the discussions and implementation of Sharon's plan due to four principle factors. First, Egypt is dissatisfied with the deterioration of the Palestinian leadership and inconsistencies within the Palestinian agenda. According to Egypt, these issues are a major threat to the Palestinian cause. If the situation persists, any hope of realizing Palestinian rights will be eliminated. Therefore, it is Egypt's obligation to contribute to getting the Palestinian house in order as soon as possible in order to prevent the current breakdown from reaching a climax.
Second, Egypt recognizes that Sharon's plan is Israel's last word following the collapse of the roadmap, Beirut peace initiative and Arab peace efforts. Egypt believes that it must play a role due to the abnormal circumstances of Palestinians today. As long as there is no alternative to Sharon's plan, Egypt appears convinced that the plan will serve as a preliminary bridge obliging Israel toward relinquishing the majority of the West Bank, which is necessary for a comprehensive settlement.
Third, Egypt is concerned that, if Israel withdraws from Gaza, the Strip could evolve into a hub of tension that would negatively influence Egypt's steady relationship with Israel and the United States. In order to safeguard its relationships, Egypt is willing to play a central role in maintaining security in the Gaza Strip, particularly with respect to control over the Palestinian-Egyptian border. Taking the aforementioned factors into account eliminates justifications regarding border control on behalf of the Israelis. Egypt believes that its central security role will result in the complete termination of the Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip.
Finally, it is important to remember that Egypt has recently been under tremendous American and international pressure and has been a direct target of the US "Greater Middle East Project." Therefore, Egypt is compelled to perform well with respect to pursuit of a Palestinian-Israeli settlement, even though a comprehensive agreement is not yet on the horizon.
Has the Egyptian role changed? Egypt is attempting to maneuver in order to firmly sustain its principles regarding the Palestinian cause. However, it is clear that Egypt and other Arab countries are increasingly constricted in terms of the space they are afforded to uphold their convictions. This situation has led to imposition of the Israeli agenda, which is not conducive to a comprehensive, mutually acceptable political settlement.
Ali Jarbawi is a professor of political science at Birzeit University in the West Bank.
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