A Toxic Brew in Sinai

By Evelyn Gordon
JINSA Fellow

To grasp how badly the security situation in Sinai has deteriorated, one fact suffices: Israel now receives as many intelligence warnings about Sinai-based terror plots as it does about terror from Gaza.

By Evelyn Gordon
JINSA Fellow

To grasp how badly the security situation in Sinai has deteriorated, one fact suffices: Israel now receives as many intelligence warnings about Sinai-based terror plots as it does about terror from Gaza.

This, obviously, is of great concern to Israel. But it should also concern the international community because, unlike terror from the West Bank or Gaza, which, despite periodic Israeli counteroffensives, has never drawn other Arab countries into the conflict, Sinai-based terror could easily end up starting a war between Israel and Egypt.

Last summer, for instance, angry mobs throughout Egypt demanded retaliation after Israeli soldiers repelling a cross-border terror attack from Sinai accidentally killed Egyptian troops caught in the cross-fire. That time, sanity prevailed and the Egyptian government did not seek to escalate the situation militarily. But if cross-border attacks proliferate, more Egyptian casualties would likely ensue. Public demands for retaliatory action would then intensify – especially since Egypt’s new leadership seems to prefer whipping up anti-Israel passions to cooling them down: In a televised debate earlier this month, for instance, both leading presidential contenders termed Israel an “enemy” and an “adversary” and vowed to reconsider the peace treaty.

If public sentiment in favor of war becomes strong enough – hardly inconceivable when 61% of Egyptians already favor scrapping the treaty – the government might feel compelled to accede even if it didn’t actually want a war. And if it’s also facing public discontent over the country’s dire economic situation, it might even see war as a useful distraction.

In theory, this explosive situation has one saving grace: Both Israel and Egypt have a genuine interest in getting Sinai terror under control, meaning fruitful cooperation should be possible. Israel obviously wants to prevent attacks on its citizens. Egypt’s interest is twofold. First, most Sinai terror to date has actually targeted Egyptians: Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm has reported more than 50 attacks on Sinai police stations alone since Egypt’s revolution began in January 2011. Second, Sinai terror hurts Egypt’s economy: Tourist resorts will clearly suffer if the peninsula becomes known as a terrorist hotbed, while the natural gas pipeline, which has been a favorite terrorist target, remains an important source of foreign currency even after Egypt canceled its gas deal with Israel, since it also supplies Jordan.

In practice, however, the job of restoring order to Sinai has been impossibly complicated by Egyptian leaders’ own anti-Israel rhetoric.

Egypt has consistently said it can’t reassert control over Sinai without a major influx of new troops. And while that may once have been a mere excuse aimed at getting Israel to agree to end the demilitarization of Sinai, by now, given how badly the situation has deteriorated, it may even be true. The problem is that unless Cairo wishes to abrogate the peace treaty outright, it needs Israel’s consent to bring additional troops into the peninsula. And with Egypt’s new leaders openly vowing to reconsider the peace treaty while also fanning the flames of anti-Israel fervor, Jerusalem will be very reluctant to agree.

In the past, Israel acceded to numerous requests to allow more troops into Sinai, to the point that the peninsula now hosts two-and-a-half brigades beyond what the treaty permits. This was never uncontroversial; opponents consistently warned that it set a dangerous precedent, which could ultimately undo the peace treaty’s most important achievement – the demilitarization of Sinai. But successive governments concluded that the benefits outweighed the dangers, because the risk of cross-border terror was concrete and immediate, whereas the risk that these troops would be turned against Israel seemed nonexistent: Though the Israeli-Egyptian peace was always chilly, former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had demonstrated a rock-solid commitment to maintaining it throughout his 30-year tenure.

Now, however, the situation is very different. With presidential front-runner Amr Moussa declaring the Camp David Accords “dead and buried,” and the Muslim Brotherhood, which won the parliamentary elections, urging “millions of martyrs” to “march toward Jerusalem” at a campaign rally, the risk that any troops brought into Sinai could later be turned against Israel seems very real. That confronts Israel with a genuine dilemma: refuse to let more troops in, and risk additional cross-border terror that could spark a war, or allow them in, and risk fighting any subsequent war from a vastly inferior starting position. But given Sinai’s history as Egypt’s forward staging area for repeated wars against Israel, the need to maintain the peninsula as a buffer zone will likely take precedence as long as the treaty’s continuance seems in doubt.

Ironically, this presents Egypt’s new government with a dilemma of its own, since its desire to play the anti-Israel card clashes with its goal of reestablishing control of Sinai. But so far, anti-Israel sentiment seems to be winning hands down.

Any attempt to address this problem must wait until after Egypt’s presidential elections; asking candidates to moderate their rhetoric during a campaign would likely be fruitless. But given Washington’s clear interest in averting another Israeli-Egyptian war, it must launch a full-court diplomatic press immediately after the elections (which are called for later this month, possibly followed by a run-off in mid-June) to persuade the new president to tone down the rhetoric and tone up security cooperation with Israel in Sinai. As the provider of some $1.5 billion a year in aid, America is not without leverage, and it’s hard to imagine a more critical use for it.

The obvious place to start is with the extra troops already in Sinai. Israel complains that so far, these troops have done nothing to counter Sinai terror: Attacks on the pipeline, for instance, continued despite an influx soldiers ostensibly brought in to protect it. In other words, Israel has already made substantial concessions on the principle of a demilitarized Sinai while so far getting nothing in exchange. Thus a serious counterterrorism effort by these forces would not only reduce the risk of cross-border terror igniting a war, but would also help rebuild trust in Egypt’s willingness to honor its commitments.

With Syria in flames and the Iranian nuclear crisis rapidly approaching climax, the last thing the world needs is an Israeli-Egyptian war. But absent intensive international engagement, the Sinai tinderbox is liable to spark one.

Evelyn Gordon, JINSA Fellow, is a journalist and commentator writing in The Jerusalem Post and Commentary. For more information on the JINSA Fellowship program, click here.