Earlier this week Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu reportedly allowed about 800 Egyptian troops to deploy around Sharm el-Sheikh at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula.
Some reports said Bedouin in the area—as part of the unrest now roiling Egypt—were challenging the Egyptian authorities there and needed to be quelled. The demilitarization of Sinai—from which Egypt attacked Israel in the 1948, 1967, and 1973 wars—is a central plank of the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. It was maintained for three decades—until now.
That is not to say Sinai’s demilitarization has made life easy for Israel. Particularly since the latter’s disengagement from Gaza in 2005, Sinai has been a smuggling route where missiles and other weaponry originating in Iran make their way to Hamas in Gaza. More recently it has also been a route where illegal African migrants—smuggled, like the weapons, by gangs of Sinai Bedouin—make their way into Israel, creating serious social and crime problems in some of its cities.
Still, to most Israelis these have seemed prices worth paying in return for the Israeli-Egyptian peace—or lack of military hostilities—that has prevailed since the peace treaty was signed. This week’s remilitarization of Sinai—even if at a small, symbolic level, and done to help the Mubarak regime preserve control at a moment of crisis—rouses specters for Israelis already rattled by fears of that regime’s dissolution.
Indeed, Aluf Benn, an Israeli columnist who drew some attention this week for calling Barack Obama “the president who lost Egypt,” sees the remilitarization as irreversible:
The Egyptians view the restrictions to their sovereignty in Sinai that were established in the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty as a painful blow to their national pride. Now they have taken advantage of the situation and redeployed their army in the demilitarized peninsula. No future government in Cairo will return this force to the other side of Suez.
That is not to say Benn is critical of Netanyahu’s move: whereas “the ideologue in [him],” he claims, “would certainly have advocated holding steadfast to the letter of the treaty…Netanyahu the statesman opted to sideline the demilitarization arrangements, fearing what would happen if angry masses took over the Straits of Tiran and were in a position to threaten Israel’s freedom of navigation to [its southern port of] Eilat.”
From that point, though, Benn—a left-of-center columnist whose earlier criticism of Obama seemed notable for reflecting Israeli unity on the Egyptian crisis—does manage to mount a curious challenge to Netanyahu. For if the latter’s “predictions come true,” he writes, “and Egypt becomes a new Iran…should [Israel] go back to the strategic situation that prevailed before the peace agreement? Should it prepare for confrontation on all fronts…? Or should it make peace in the east and the north and concentrate its force against a new enemy in the south?”
By “the east and the north” Benn means, of course, the West Bank Palestinians and Syria respectively. In other words, for him, the right response to the crumbling of one “peace” would be—to “make” two more. Despite the facts that: decades of attempts at forging Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Syrian peace have led nowhere at best and to severe terrorism in Israel at worst; and the present situation in Egypt reveals the fragility of any such “peace” in a fundamentally unstable Middle East.
Benn insists, though, that
peace treaties are not an expression of leftist messianism, as argued by the right wing. Diplomacy is an alternative to force…. If an Islamic republic takes hold in Egypt, Netanyahu will face a reverse situation and will be forced to decide whether to withdraw from the West Bank and the Golan Heights in an effort to stabilize the eastern front and concentrate a deterrent force on the southern front.
It makes perfect arithmetical sense, at least: if you find yourself facing three enemies, why not “stabilize” two of them and have only one? Except that Benn thereby ignores all the painful lessons Israelis have learned about the depth and intransigence of Arab-Muslim rejection and hatred—not to mention the radical strategic precariousness of giving up the West Bank and the Golan; and puts the onus on Netanyahu—that is, on Israel—to make friends, as if the Palestinians and Syria exist only to be courted by Israel and will wilt as soon as it makes a move.
And so the Israeli “right-left” divide endures.
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