Israel has a problem with Egypt. It isn’t playing its assigned role.
Both Israel and the Bush administration have assigned Egypt the role of “moderating force” in the Middle East in their peace process drama. In that role, Egypt is trusted to work with Israel and the U.S. in advancing peace between Israel and its neighbors.
As a “moderating force,” both the administration and the Olmert government argue that Egypt shares their goals of weakening the so-called extremists in Hamas and Islamic Jihad and Iran to the benefit of so-called moderates in Fatah led by Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.
Unfortunately, Egypt isn’t living up to expectations. Rather than weaken “extremists,” Egypt, together with Iran, is Hamas’s primary sponsor. Since 2001, Egypt has done more to legitimatize Hamas than any other country by hosting Hamas commanders on a near weekly basis in Cairo.
In those meetings, which were purportedly “ceasefire negotiations” between Hamas and Fatah and Islamic Jihad with an occasional Hizbullah contingent also present, the Egyptians, far from promoting a cessation of violence, enabled the terror masters to coordinate their attacks.
After Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza and surrender of control over the Gaza-Egyptian border along the so-called Philadephi Corridor, Israel expected Egypt to take over its role of preventing weapons from being smuggled into Gaza. To this end, Israel bowed to the Egyptian demand to deploy 750 heavily armed border police forces to the border in contravention of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty which prescribed a complete demilitarization of the Sinai Peninsula in order to prevent Egypt from again launching a surprise attack against Israel.
Sharon’s agreement caused an outcry in the Knesset led by the then-chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Dr. Yuval Steinitz. Noting Egypt’s longstanding support for Palestinian terror groups, Steinitz argued against this step on the basis that the Egyptians, who want a complete remilitarization of the Sinai, would take no action to prevent the border with Gaza from being breached. He further warned that Egypt would argue it would need still more troops along the border to take any action – and so advance its interest of remilitarizing Sinai.
And indeed, since Israel left Gaza and vacated the Philadelphi Corridor, Egypt – just as Steinitz and top IDF commanders warned – has enabled weapons smuggling and has demanded that it be allowed to deploy still more forces to its border with Gaza and Israel. In an article published recently by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, a former commander of the IDF Southern Command, Major General (retired.) Yom Tov Samia spelled out the dimensions of the weapons smuggling operations.
“The Palestinians,” he wrote, “have brought into Gaza more than 30,000 rifles during the past two years, more than six million rounds of ammunition, more than 230 tons of explosives, and scores of anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles. These are the weapons Israel will face next time. The next round in Gaza will look more like Lebanon than what Israel faced in Operation Defensive Shield in Judea and Samaria in 2002, or in previous rounds in Gaza.”
Israeli defense officials warn that due to the massive inflow across the Egyptian border of weapons and terror personnel trained in Iran, Gaza has been transformed into a “strategic threat.” And this is Egypt’s doing. As Public Security Minister Avi Dichter said last month, Egypt could stop all weapons smuggling activities to Gaza “in a day” if it wished to. To do this, the Egyptians don’t need to deploy forces along the border. They simply need to set up checkpoints to block the weapons from traversing Egyptian territory.
Indeed, since most of the weapons are imported to Egypt from Iran through the Egyptian port in Alexandria, proper policing of its ports would be sufficient to end most of the weapons shipments before they got anywhere near the border with Gaza.
For its part, the U.S. Congress, which controls the levels of American military and civilian aid to Egypt, is well aware of the problem. Tom Lantos, chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, has been outspoken in his criticism of Egypt’s role as Hamas’s primary sponsor. As a result of Egypt’s actions, last week the Congressional foreign aid bill set aside $100 million of Egypt’s $1.3 billion military aid until Secretary of State Rice certifies that Egypt has ended its support for weapons smuggling.
Unfortunately, the bill includes a waiver empowering Rice to ignore the cut if she deems it necessary for U.S. national security.
Rather than work with its allies on Capitol Hill, the Olmert government has been acting as Egypt’s primary defender in Washington. Last week the Jerusalem Post reported that the Defense Ministry sent video footage to the Israeli Embassy in Washington showing Egyptian border guards openly assisting 80 Hamas terrorists traverse the border into Gaza through a hole they had cut in the border fence. Then too, the Defense Ministry sent clear evidence of Egypt assisting Hamas smuggle advanced weapons into Gaza through tunnels under the Philadelphi Corridor.
Rather than make this evidence known to Congress, the Embassy, acting on orders from Jerusalem, is sitting on the video footage so that Israel shouldn’t be seen as undercutting Egypt’s position in Washington.
The Egyptians have no such compunctions. Responding to Congressional pressure, Mubarak last month dispatched a contingent of Egyptians generals to Capitol Hill. There they claimed that the Israeli military is responsible for the weapons shipments to Gaza. The generals alleged that Israeli soldiers actively assist the smugglers who transfer the weapons to Hamas from the sea.
Then too, after Congress sent its foreign aid bill to the White House for presidential approval, Egypt’s Ambassador in Washington, Nabil Fahmi told the media that Egypt wo
uld reject any decrease in U.S. aid and sees such an aid reduction as American meddling in Egyptian internal affairs – as if Egypt has the right to tell U.S. lawmakers how they should spend taxpayer money.
Responding to Congressional inquiries, Rice on the one hand argued that given Egypt’s assigned role as a moderating force in the region it has no interest in smuggling weapons to Hamas. On the other hand, she sent envoys to the region who have recommended setting up a trilateral American-Israeli-Egyptian committee to discuss the issue – a committee that will no doubt do nothing to end the problem. Beyond that, Rice supports Egypt’s demand to deploy still more forces to the border with Gaza and Israel.
Rice’s positions, like the Foreign Ministry’s decision to hide from Congress evidence of direct Egyptian support for Hamas, expose a disturbing reality. Both the Bush administration and the Olmert government willingly enable Egypt to work with Iran in transforming Gaza into the new hub of global terror in order to maintain the fiction of Egypt’s moderation. The fantasy of a peace process sponsored by the so-called moderate Arab states led by Egypt and Saudi Arabia is more important to both the Olmert government and the Bush administration than defending southern Israel and fighting terrorism.
Orignally published in The Jewish Press.