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Uneasy deals between Israel and Egypt in play

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TEL AVIV -- For the first time since the overthrow of Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, Israel is conducting a thorough strategic reassessment of its future relationship with Egypt.

The reassessment began long before last week's bloody clash in the Negev, which claimed the lives of eight Israelis (three of them soldiers), 14 Palestinians and three Egyptians -- a young army officer and two policemen. It was prompted by the blowing up of the pipeline that supplied Egyptian gas to Israel and Jordan. It was precipitated by the realization that Sinai has become an advanced terrorist base, through which Iranian arms and instructors move freely to the Gaza Strip.

Last week's incident, the worst since 2008 and the first since Mubarak's downfall, is raising several important questions:

To what extent does the new Egyptian military regime, under Field Marshal Muhammad Hussein Tantawi, remain committed to the international war against terrorism and, in case of an Israeli war with Syria or another Cast Lead operation in the Gaza Strip, would Egypt remain passive as in the past or throw its military weight in support of the Arab party?

During the "ancien regimes" of presidents Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, Egypt did not intervene after Israel destroyed the Iraqi nuclear reactor in Baghdad, nor did it intervene in the 1982 First Lebanon War, after which Yasser Arafat found refuge in Tunisia and his military forces were dispersed among six Arab countries, excluding Egypt.

How should Israel respond to an Egyptian request to reopen the 1979 peace treaty and allow enhanced military presence in Sinai to enable a fuller control of the desert? According to the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, Egypt is allowed to deploy a very limited military force in Sinai, while the freedom of navigation in the Red Sea is guaranteed by the multinational force.

Egypt now argues conditions in Sinai have changed in the last 32 years and therefore it needs to deploy more troops in the desert to assume fuller control over the Bedouin tribes.

Israel recognizes this need and it lately agreed to the entry of two more Egyptian battalions to Sinai. Israel, however, is reluctant to alter drastically that clause in the peace treaty, which was included as a "security valve" against future war.

Yet, since the overthrow of Mubarak, it has become clear that Tantawi's Egypt is not in full control of Sinai. Various terrorist groups, including al-Qaida and World Islamic Jihad, have coalesced with the Bedouin tribes and have established semi-permanent bases, through which instructors, missiles and 122 rockets were brought from Libya and smuggled into the Gaza Strip, or remained stored with the Sinai Bedouins.

Finally, how committed is Tantawi to preventing the smuggling through Sinai into Israel of hundreds of African refugees -- every month -- into Israel? The refugees come mostly from Sudan. Normally, they come by small boats to Sinai and from there they walk tens of kilometres and cross through the open border into Israel, north of Eilat. Last month alone, 185 Sudanese refugees crossed into Israel. This is creating a social problem in Israel, since the refugees accept manual jobs for a very small salary, depriving Israeli workers of jobs.

In 2005, then prime minister Ariel Sharon decided to build a security fence along the Egyptian-Israeli border. So far, only a small fraction of the fence has been built. However, the Netanyahu government allocated last week the necessary funds to complete the fence as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, Israel and Egypt seem to be close to ending the conflict regarding last week's incident north of Eilat. Imitating the Turkish example, Egypt, too, threatened to recall its ambassador from Tel Aviv if Israel did not offer an apology for killing the three Egyptian security personnel. The move was cancelled following a quick apology by defence minister Ehud Barak.

The Israeli minister also suggested a joint Israeli-Egyptian investigation of last week's events.

Egypt welcomed Barak's apology and qualified it as "a step in the right direction." Egypt still insists on a formal apology by the Israeli government if a joint investigation is to take place. Israeli officials hope the apology issue would not become a crisis between the two governments.


Samuel Segev is the Free Press Middle East correspondent

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 23, 2011 A11

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About Samuel Segev

Samuel Segev is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in the Middle East. He is based in Tel Aviv.


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