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Israel's Cold Peace With Egypt

Warm Peace Requires Clear Orders On Gaza - For Egypt And Israel's Commanders

By C. Hart

Israel will attend the Annapolis meeting next week flanked by two partners in peace – Jordan and Egypt. Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak have been on a recent public relations campaign, trying to convince other Arab nations to attend the Maryland conference. The meetings will reportedly include Israeli and Palestinian points of agreement and disagreement on principles of peace, and may also become an open forum for Arab countries to give their opinions regarding a comprehensive Middle East plan. This paves the way for the Arab Peace Initiative to be discussed by Saudi Arabia, and Israel’s return of the Golan Heights by Syria, presuming both nations will attend the conference.

Meanwhile, Egypt, one of the largest recipients of U.S. military aid, knows that it must use its influence among moderate Arab nations to draw them to the Annapolis peace table, especially with an American Congress deciding yearly whether to renew that aid, which Egypt has used to expand its military arsenal including advanced weapons systems.

Egypt’s reputation as being a leader in the Arab world was confirmed by this writer on Wednesday, November 21, during a brunch at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA). Speaking to Counselor Dr. Sameh El-Souefi of the Egyptian Embassy, before attending a JCPA briefing, he assured me that Egypt’s 7,000 years of history, its oil independence, and Mubarak’s ability to control groups opposed to his government (such as the Muslim Brotherhood), gave Egypt its place of honor among the nations.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in meeting with Mubarak earlier this week, praised the Egyptian leader in comments at a Sharm El Sheikh press conference on Tuesday, November 20. Speaking first about the accomplishments of Mubarak’s predecessor President Anwar Sadat, who arrived in Israel 30 years ago this month to make peace, Olmert said that Sadat’s visit had been a historic turning point that changed the face of the Middle East.

Later, Olmert declared, “I think that the Annapolis meeting cannot fail for the simple fact that it’s very taking place is a success. The fact that one of the most important leaders of the world, certainly the leader of such an important Arab country, President Mubarak, in backing and encouraging the Annapolis meeting, is proof of the success of its being held.”

In answering questions from reporters that day, Olmert commented that the President of Egypt is a friend of Israel, “and we set joint patterns of activity between our countries’ security and intelligence elements in order to prevent continued infiltration of terrorists into the Gaza Strip.”
What Olmert was referring to was the massive influx of weapons, drugs, human trafficking, and money that has poured through Egypt into Gaza over the years, especially since Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005. This has left the area vulnerable to infiltrators.

Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has been blamed for his refusal to listen to the advice of his military generals during the time of the withdrawal. They entreated him to keep a military presence along the porous border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. Instead, Sharon received a tacit response from Egypt, indicating that the country would take responsibility for the area referred to as the Philadelphi Corridor. It has now become a source of tension and frustration between IDF soldiers and their Egyptian counterparts.

According to Israeli military research, more than 30,000 guns, 6 million rounds of ammunition, 230 tons of explosives (TNT and C4), 2100 pistols, and hundreds of missiles, rockets, and rocket launchers have crossed the Egypt-Gaza border, falling into the hands of Fatah, Hamas and various Palestinian terror groups. This also includes drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, and heroin smuggled through hundreds of underground tunnels. In addition, Sinai Bedouins have reportedly been aiding in the smuggling, collecting monies from human traffickers, and helping armed terrorists penetrate Israel, including those who conducted a suicide bombing in Eilat in January 2007.

Furthermore, while Israel’s relationship with Jordan has been a warm peace, including ongoing joint economic and environmental projects, this has not been the case with Egypt, which Israelis say is a relationship based on a cold peace. This was implied at the JCPA briefing led by Israeli Major General (Res.) Yom Tov Samiah, Former Commander of the IDF Southern Command. In his comments to members of the diplomatic corps and foreign media, Samiah spoke of Israel leaving the Gaza Strip without changing any rules of engagement with the Palestinians. “And, I was begging Ariel Sharon and his people, please put on the table what is the punch line of this engagement. What are the new rules for tomorrow? Why are we leaving Philadelphi?”

According to Samiah, Israel could not count on Egypt to do the job of policing the border for Israel, even before the summer of 2005. He told a story of meeting an Egyptian general on the Egyptian side of the border before the year 2000. Samiah asked the general, “Can you avoid any smuggling or infiltration from the Egyptian side to the Palestinian side?” The general replied, “Yes, I can do it.” Samiah then asked, “What do you need in order to do it?” The general replied, “I just need a clear order that this is my mission.”

In his comments at the JCPA, Samiah stated what he perceived was the current policy failure of the Egyptian government. “There is not any clear order to the Egyptian police or army to avoid any infiltrations or smuggling from Sinai to the Gaza Strip. If they will have a clear order, and the tools that they need, they will do it.”

Samiah suggested that the Egyptians could have set up a militarized zone along the Philadelphi route, within the Sinai, to stop the penetration of terrorists, weapons, and smugglers. He claimed that both Israel and Egypt had always agreed that the Philadelphi area would be militarized. “The rules are very clear. So, what happened in the summer of 2005?” Samiah wondered.

Today, the Egyptians continue to pronounce that they are willing and able to handle the border problems, claiming they recently discovered hundreds of underground tunnels. But, they have still not stopped the massive flow of illegal arms and terrorists.

For Samiah, the future looks grim. “The terrorist groups in Gaza, especially the Hamas, including the Islamic Jihad and others, are looking only to the next war with Israel. They are preparing themselves for no other option. The next round is unavoidable from my point of view.” He added that rooting out the problem now will produce many casualties, which would have been unnecessary if Israel or Egypt had previously taken proper measures.

While the IDF waits on an order from Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak to clear out the Philadelphi Corridor, Samiah says the army is also waiting on a clear mission to stop the Kassam rockets from hitting the Israeli border town of Sderot. Once the IDF goes into Gaza, Samiah suggests that Israel do what the Egyptians are refusing to do. “We should occupy again the Philadelphi forever, widen it for 3 kilometers, and destroy all the Hamas infrastructure in the Gaza Strip... The cost will be very high, both for the Israelis and the Palestinians, but we don’t have any other solution.”

Samiah hopes that new leadership will take control of the area once it is cleared of terrorists and weapons. “From my point of view, we should do every step that serves Israel, not that which serves the Hamas today and the Fatah tomorrow, or the Fatah today and the Hamas tomorrow.”

During his remarks, Samiah’s comments were refuted by Egyptian Embassy Counselor El-Souefi. Objecting to most of Samiah’s statements, he said, “I think that the timing of such a narrative is inappropriate. We’ve been hearing such a narrative for the last year from politicians, generals, etc., and even from some regular Israeli officials. This narrative was not only dismissed by us, it was dismissed by the Prime Minister of Israel.”

El-Souefi was referring to the statements made by both Olmert and Mubarak at Sharm El-Sheikh, which implied enhanced coordination in the future. “What they agreed to is to enhance the mechanism, identifying the problem as a management problem,” he explained. El-Souefi insisted that it was now time to concentrate only on the positive aspects of the Israeli-Egyptian relationship.

The disagreement at the JCPA reveals a much deeper problem that exists between Israel and Egypt today as both countries attempt to move the peace process forward with the Palestinians, but without clearly stated objectives in how to deal with matters on the ground. For years, mechanisms have been created to enhance security cooperation, but in Samiah’s opinion, they have failed. “I’m tired of creating mechanisms...A mechanism without a clear order is just a waste of time and money and words,” he pointed out.

Referring to the 40 invitations that the United States has extended to various countries to attend the Annapolis conference, Samiah said going there would be a waste of time. “I’m not expecting anything from Annapolis except frustrations on all sides...If they want to find a solution, they should close themselves in one room, not with 38 witnesses to witness their talks.”

Furthermore, Samiah believes that the international community has strayed away from the intentions of the Road Map. “I believe the Road Map can be something to start with. But, with our zigzag road, we are running away from the Road Map. We are going to other maps and to other roads.”

A majority of Israelis do not think that Annapolis will produce results towards peace and security with the Palestinians. Recently, Fatah, a group under the authority of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, killed an Israeli civilian in a West Bank settlement. Samiah feels that tomorrow it will be Hamas who will fight Israel. “Who will implement an agreement from Annapolis on the Palestinian side? You cannot create any political solution when you don’t have the force implemented,” he declared.

In the meantime, Israelis continue to believe that the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt has been good for both sides, and they hope it will remain strong. Samiah showed some optimism. “I must say very clearly, the peace with Egypt is a strategic asset for Israel as it is with Egypt. I cannot imagine our situation today without the peace with Egypt during the last 30 years.”

For most Israelis today, what’s even harder to imagine is what it will be like during the next 30 years if the current situation continues to remain the same between Israel and the Palestinians.

[C. Hart writes for ThreatsWatch from Jerusalem, Israel.]