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March 3, 2011 3:27 pm

Can Another Arab-Israeli Conflict Be Avoided?

avatar by Arik Elman

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The Arab Legion attacking the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem, May 1948.

Probably the most shocking development following the Egyptian turmoil was the speed with which various American liberals had pronounced their indifference to the future of the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. Showing their true attitude to the “legitimate security concerns” of the Jewish State, representatives of American Left and the pro-Arab foreign policy veterans adopted the stance of not-so benign neglect, aptly represented by the former Ambassador Edward W. Walker: “It’s up to Israel, actually, to make its case for a good relationship with Egypt”.

Since then, in the writings of the liberal pundits, a paradigm had emerged – Israel must be made to “win” the peace with Egypt yet again by “respecting the territory and the democratic rights of the Palestinians”. And if the Jews are reluctant to show “respect” (read: capitulate to Palestinian territorial demands, including in Jerusalem, and accept the “right of return”, for those were the obstacles that frustrated the late PM Ehud Olmert’s last push for peace in 2008), why, America must force them to see the light.

In his recent opus, former Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer had expressed this idea as clearly and as cynically as possible: “For sure, more assertive policies — even if well- intentioned — must be avoided. These would include a U.S. or international plan for Egyptian economic development; a U.S. demand for Egypt to reaffirm its peace treaty with Israel; or some new linkage that Congress or the administration attaches to existing aid to Egypt”. Pressure on Egypt will be counterproductive; to forge new relationship with the new “Arab street”, America must become aggressive in its dealings with Israel.

To be sure, the pro-Israeli stance of the American public, expressed by the Congress, and the necessary focus of the presidential attention on the economy, jobs and the deficit, relegate those pronouncements to the safe zone of wishful thinking. Nevertheless, they find a receptive audience – and not only in Egypt, where the bon mot of the “liberal” opposition is that the treaty with Israel must be “revised”. Up until now, the Obama administration had largely followed Kurtzer’s advice, limiting itself only to expressions of “hope” that the new rulers of Egypt will honor the agreement with Israel. Hope, not demand – the administration had pointedly refused to use the “d” word, at least not in public. If this goes on, the emerging political forces in Egypt risk developing a misunderstanding of the American position similar to one experienced by Saddam Hussein after his little chat with Ambassador Glaspie on July 25, 1990.

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What is apparent from the whole inane liberal discourse on the future of the treaty, however, is that none of them had read it recently or ever. In fact, as the international diplomatic documents go, the 1979 peace agreement signed by Begin and Sadat is crystal clear. While it does leave the room for future reviews and amendments “by mutual agreement” (and, in fact, Israel had agreed several times to expand the Egyptian police presence near the border), and provides for arbitration in cases of disagreement, it does not give Egypt the right to “review” or “revise” its provisions unilaterally.

As for the Palestinian issue, the language of the treaty explicitly denies any linkage between itself and any other outstanding dispute between Israel and its neighbors. Moreover, Egyptian hotheads looking for excuses to breach the treaty will find out that the joint letter to President Carter, in which Begin and Sadat had spelled out their commitment to find a solution to Palestinian problem, speaks not even of Palestinian state, but of “self-governing authority”, not unlike the current PA.

The often-brandished “Egyptian pride”, hurt by the limitations on military deployment in Sinai and the Egyptian cooperation with Israel against Hamas, is also a red herring. In fact, the treaty allows for a significant and battle-ready Egyptian military presence between the Suez Canal and the Mitla and Gidi passes in so-called Zone A (one mechanized infantry division – 22 thousand men), and for another 4,000 border guards in the central Zone B. Despite the injured feelings of Egyptian Islamists and intellectuals, Egyptian sovereignty on the peninsula is not in doubt. Moreover – after the extensive (and American-financed and supervised) work on the expansion of Gidi pass, Egypt today has much better options to move its mobile forces to the Israeli border, if Cairo wishes so. The idea that Israel can agree to alter this arraignment and to accept Egyptian M1A1s at the border and Egyptian F-16s at the Sinai airfields, is simply too preposterous to discuss.

As for the containment of Hamas, Article III of the treaty makes it clear, that Egypt is bound to ensure that “acts or threats of belligerency, hostility or violence do not originate from and are not committed from within its territory or by any forces subject to its control or by any other force stationed on its territory“. Egypt simply isn’t allowed to ignore neither weapons smuggling into Gaza nor trafficking of terrorists in and out of the Strip, and if the future rulers in Cairo are entertaining the thought of allowing Hamas to attack Israel through the Sinai border, they should consider the costs.

So should Obama. Perhaps this would be a good time to pick up the phone and check with the President Carter about another long-forgotten document – “Memorandum of Agreement'” between the USA and Israel of March 26, 1979. In it, the United States had made the full observance of the treaty between Egypt and Israel its own business. Should the Egyptians misinterpret the signals from Washington, Obama will be compelled to take very deliberate and costly action to make sure that Israel doesn’t suffer from the consequences of losing the strategic depth and having America arm and train the Egyptian army. Much as it happened with Saddam back in 1990, and also during his own ill-fated negotiations with the Palestinians before the recent veto in the Security Council, Obama might discover that, once his Arab interlocutor had committed himself to act, he becomes pretty much impervious to persuasion. Suddenly, with some ecstatic crew of the Egyptian APC rushing to plant a flag on the Israeli border, the core credibility of America as a keeper of the international order will be put on the line.

Of course, it is not as if the Egyptian side hasn’t breached the treaty already. Perhaps Israel should agree to attend those “revision” talks, only to point out the mockery Egypt has made of its commitments to terminate all boycotts of Israel, to establish normal economic and cultural relations, to ensure free movement of people and goods, and to refrain from inciting hostility against Israel and Jews.

Dan Kurtzer’s disastrous advice notwithstanding, President Obama should not waste time. The sooner he begins to explain to the post-Mubarak Egypt, that the American interests in the region and the American expectations from Egypt remain the same, that the treaty with Israel is not optional, and that the American financial support depends on Egyptian behavior at the regional and international stage, the better are the odds of avoiding another, devastating, bloody and utterly pointless Arab-Israeli war, which he will otherwise own completely.

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  • Ron Agam

    Excellent article , very well articulated and documented.

  • liana

    Very well written and so true!

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