MK Yuval Steinitz, the chairman of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, compares Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's decision to enable the Egyptian military to deploy its forces in the Sinai Peninsula to the decision by the ancient Greeks to allow the Trojan horse to enter their city.
"The strategic blindness of both decisions is equally complete," Steinitz explains. "Here what is involved is an Israeli government enabling our most formidable enemy – Egypt – to deploy its forces at our borders within striking distance of all of our air force bases and other sensitive sites in southern Israel. It constitutes a strategic threat of the highest order to Israel's national security and survival."
According to the plan that Sharon and his advisers have been negotiating with Egypt over the past several months, after Israel's planned evacuation of the Gaza Strip, Egyptian forces will take control of the border between Gaza and Egypt. Both Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Sharon said this week that in spite of the strenuous objections of the IDF and the Shin Bet security service, Israel will transfer control over the Philadephi Route, which separates Palestinian Rafah from Egyptian Rafah, to Egyptian control. According to Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, Egypt will deploy 750 troops to the border with Gaza and another 1,500-2,000 troops to the border with Israel.
As Steinitz and Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu – another harsh critic of the plan – have made clear, this initiative constitutes nothing less than an Israeli invitation to the Egyptians to remilitarize the Sinai Peninsula, the demilitarization of which was the most important strategic accomplishment of the 1981 Camp David peace treaty.
Sharon and his advisers argue that the step is necessary to enable Egypt to stem weapon-smuggling from Egypt to Gaza. And yet, according to senior IDF commanders, the border guard presence that Egypt currently fields in the Sinai is more than sufficient to block the smuggling. What Egypt lacks, they say, is not the wherewithal, but the will, to act. And yet, in his negotiations with the Egyptians, Sharon has agreed to allow them to deploy heavy armored forces to the Sinai.
Steinitz is working to block this move by insisting that any change in the status of forces agreement between Israel and Egypt must receive the approval of the Knesset before it is implemented.
As Steinitz has rightly argued, in spite of its presumptive peace with Israel, Egypt is in fact the Arab state most hostile to the Jewish state. Since the mid-1990s, the Egyptian military's annual joint forces exercise involves simulating a war against Israel. Egypt, which due to US military aid, boasts the most powerful army in the Arab world, is the epicenter of Arab anti-Semitic publications and incitement.
Egypt stands at the head of almost every political initiative launched against Israel in international forums. And, in hosting the continuous dialogue between Palestinian terror groups, the Egyptians have overseen the operational coordination between the PA, Fatah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
ISRAEL'S DECISION to invite the deployment of Egyptian forces to its borders is based on an increasingly common and exceedingly dangerous malady that has plagued Israel's leaders over the past decade. In working to defend itself against Arab aggression, Israel is presented with a number of difficult military options. In the case at hand, Israel faces a security challenge of contending with Palestinian weapon-smuggling from Egypt. Given that to date it has not wished to deploy its own forces in the Sinai to stem the flow, Israel has placed its forces on the narrow strip of land separating Gaza from Egypt and attempted to seize the weapons at the border. Now that the government has decided to vacate Gaza, it no longer wishes for the IDF to man this border.
The reason why weapons are smuggled from Egypt to Gaza is twofold. On the one hand, the Egyptians have an interest in continuing and escalating the Palestinian terror war against Israel, because they believe their position is enhanced through an erosion of Israeli strength. On the other, the Palestinians have an interest in bringing in the weapons because they wish to enhance their ability to wage war on Israel.
Israel's decision to vacate Gaza has done nothing to change the way the Egyptians and Palestinians perceive their interests. And yet, in order to leave Gaza with a good conscience, Sharon and his advisers apparently feel that they must at least pretend this is not the case. So in the absence of any palatable option for continuing to stem the flow of weapons from Egypt to the PA, Israel has made one up. In this imaginary option, Israel will leave and Egypt and the Palestinians will immediately redefine their interests to match those of Israel. The fact that there is no factual basis for this assessment is evidently of no interest to Sharon.
The same strategic blindness and petulance informed former prime minister Ehud Barak when he decided to pull Israeli forces out of southern Lebanon and when he offered to cede almost all of Judea and Samaria to Palestinian sovereignty. Israel was deployed in south Lebanon to provide a buffer zone between Israeli towns in the North and the terrorist forces operating in Lebanon under Syrian and Iranian sponsorship. Five years ago this week, responding to years of public pressure from EU-financed political groups, Barak decided to unilaterally withdraw from Lebanon without defeating Hizbullah and while betraying Israel's longtime ally, the Christian-dominated South Lebanese Army.
The results of this decision are mixed. On the one hand, the IDF has still managed to deter Hizbullah from attacking Israel – or at least from attacking Israel often – in spite of its absence in Lebanon. On the other hand, Israel's precipitous withdrawal gave a psychological victory to the forces of jihad worldwide and was one of the factors that led the Palestinians to launch their terror war against Israel four months later.
Speaking on Wednesday of Israel's retreat, Syrian-backed Lebanese President Emil Lahoud said, "Lebanon has been the only Arab territory to drive Israeli occupation forces out of its territory and the only Arab country to regain its legitimate territorial rights without making any compromise or concessions. Lebanon will continue its legitimate struggle with Israel until a global, comprehensive and just peace is reached in the Middle East."
Aside from that, in the IDF's absence, with Syrian and Iranian assistance, Hizbullah has massively expanded its arsenal, and as Hassan Nasrallah stated on Wednesday, it now has 12,000 rockets poised at the border capable of attacking all of northern Israel and has longer-range missiles capable of hitting targets in southern Israel.
Five years ago, Barak promised Israelis that after an IDF withdrawal, the "international community" would prevail on the Lebanese government to deploy the Lebanese Army along the border with Israel. He said that once Israel was gone, Hizbullah would stop being a terrorist organization dedicated to Israel's destruction and turn into a political party. Of course, none of this happened, but Barak then, like Sharon today, decided not to recognize the real options on the table, preferring instead to win popularity domestically by promising the public a perfect option that suffered only from the marginal deficit of being imaginary.
Barak tried to reenact this same security genius in his offer to the Palestinians at Camp David in July 2000. Setting aside Israel's legal claims to sovereignty over Judea and Samaria, Israel has justified its control of the areas from a security perspective on three main grounds: It is necessary for intelligence collection; for preventing an invasion from across the
Jordan River; and for preventing terrorist attacks against Israeli population centers.
Although the threat of an eastern invasion has been at least temporarily mitigated by our peace treaty with Jordan and the US military occupation of Iraq, the other two rationales remain both valid and acute – and were five years ago. And yet, given his desire to cut a deal with the PLO, Barak claimed that as soon as the Palestinians signed an agreement with Israel, they would magically abandon their societal aggression toward Israel and act as allies. If Israel needed to enter the areas after they were ceded to Palestinian control, he argued, the Palestinians would, as allies, allow our forces to do so.
AS THE ensuing four and a half years of war have shown, there was no basis for Barak's view other than his fervent prayers to the Tooth Fairy and his own vanity. Still today, even as the US is launching a global war on terrorism, the Palestinian leadership has made no attempt to curb terrorism. As Brig.-Gen. Yossi Kuperwasser, head of Military Intelligence Analysis, told foreign diplomats this week, like his predecessor Yasser Arafat, PA leader Mahmoud Abbas "relates to terrorists as though they were heroes, and therefore he is not interested in implementing arrests, disarming terrorist groups from their weapons, punishing terrorists, or stopping the smuggling of weaponry."
So today, as was the case with Barak five years ago, Sharon is basing his strategic policies not on the reality of Israel's security situation, but on what he wishes that security situation to be, and in so doing, as Steinitz argues, he is imperiling our national security.
Sharon has often said that what one sees when sitting in the prime minister's chair is different from what we little people see from down below. To judge from the strategic blindness that afflicts its current and past occupants, it might be in Israel's national security interest to replace all the chairs in the prime minister's office with new ones. And if that isn't practical, we will need to elect ourselves a new prime minister and hope that he isn't similarly afflicted by delusions of perfect choices that do not exist.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.