Strategic consequences

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 lea! der 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.