Sinai, the New Egypt, and the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty

, August 22, 2012

Vol. 12, No. 19    22 August 2012

  • The peace relationship established in 1978-9 between Israel and Egypt constituted a significant and groundbreaking change in the entire mindset of the international community, in general, and in Middle East relationships, in particular. It was a revolutionary change in the entire concept of Middle East political, military, economic, and social relationships that laid the foundation for the ensuing Middle East peace process between Israel and its other neighbors.
  • In Article III of the peace treaty, Egypt and Israel undertake: “to ensure that acts or threats of belligerency, hostility, or violence do not originate from and are not committed from within its territory, or by any forces subject to its control or by any other forces stationed on its territory.”
  • Thus, both states are obligated to prevent the use of their territory for acts of terror against the other. In the context of the present situation in Sinai and the enhanced terror activity by such organizations as Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and al-Qaeda, this means that Egypt has the full sovereign responsibility and obligation to act in order to prevent any such terror activity which could pose a threat to Israel.
  • The semi-demilitarization of Sinai, while considered necessary and agreed-upon in 1979, clearly did not visualize the possibility that thirty years hence the area would become a haven for arms smuggling and terror infrastructure. In order to cope with just such eventualities, the treaty enables various mechanisms to handle situations that crop up on an ad-hoc basis and there is no express need for formal amendment to the peace treaty itself. Conversely, any changes in the level of forces of the Egyptian army in Sinai without Israel’s agreement would constitute a violation of the treaty.
  • The present challenge and threat to the integrity of the peace treaty posed by the evolving character of Sinai is a challenge that can and should be handled within the context of the peace treaty. It is perhaps the most serious test of the capability of Egypt to prove to the world that even in an era of extreme political change, its interest is in protecting and maintaining the integrity of the peace relationship with Israel.

Introduction

The transfer of leadership in Egypt into the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood, the consequent effects on its internal political, social, economic and religious orientation and stability, its status within the Middle East region, and the standing, strength, and influence of its military – all pose a serious quandary to the international community, in general, and to those countries within Egypt’s own neighborhood, in particular.

The continued integrity of the relationship between Egypt and Israel, based on the Treaty of Peace between them signed over 33 years ago, which has served the strategic interests of both states as well as of the international community, is perhaps the major test of how the new Egypt chooses to see itself and its status in the region.

An integral component of this quandary is the Sinai Peninsula which has served as a buffer between the two countries, where the presence of Egyptian military personnel, equipment, and fortifications was limited by mutual agreement in the Treaty of Peace.

However, over the last few years, beginning before the recent changes in Egypt, but accelerating considerably since these changes, the relative calm and remoteness of the Sinai Peninsula that served as the initial factor in determining its semi-demilitarization and its character as a buffer area have given way to an extensive and lucrative arms and people-smuggling industry by the local Bedouin tribes in coordination with Hamas and other terror organizations, turning the area close to the border with Gaza and Israel into an arena of lawlessness and a threat to peace.

Taking advantage of the internal turbulence in Egypt and the lack of serious Egyptian military presence in the area, various terror organizations have developed an independent terror infrastructure in Sinai, posing a real and immediate threat both to Israel and to Egypt’s own territorial integrity, and placing the integrity of the peace treaty in danger.

This analysis looks at the effects of these recent changes on the peace relationship between Egypt and Israel, and the dilemma faced by both countries as to how to deal with the unruly situation in Sinai.

The Unique Nature of the Peace Relationship

For over thirty years, in a Middle East fraught with unceasing change, tension and surprise, there has nevertheless been one “island” of relative stability – the relationship between Egypt and Israel.

This stability was born out of very sound, solid and logical foundations that evolved as a result of several factors, both practical and symbolic. These factors included:

  • An initial period of full-fledged belligerency and hostility between the two countries and their populations (1948-9)1
  • A period of armistice, accompanied by cross-border acts of terror (by militants known as Fedayeen) and reprisals (1949-67),2 and an aggressive Arab boycott of Israel, led by Egypt3
  • Renewed hostilities and occupation of Sinai by Israel (1956-7, and 1967)
  • Movement towards reconciliation with the 1975 Interim Agreement terminating the state of belligerency4
  • The 1978 Camp David negotiations and Accords,5 and the ensuing negotiation and signing of the 1979 Peace Treaty,6 heralding a full and open relationship of peace, with diplomatic, commercial and other relations
  • A series of “normalization” agreements signed between 1979 and 1983, deepening the civil relationship between the two countries in such fields as trade, aviation, cultural relations, agricultural cooperation, customs cooperation, tourism, etc.
  • An ongoing, stable, yet low-level peace relationship between the countries

The peace relationship that evolved between Israel and Egypt, founded upon this sequence of events, with the concomitant psychological effects on the populations of each side, constituted a significant and groundbreaking change in the entire mindset of the international community, in general, and in Middle East relationships, in particular.

The peace relationship established in 1978-9 was, in fact, far more than a theoretical termination of belligerency. It was a revolutionary change in the entire concept of Middle East political, military, economic, and social relationships that laid the foundation for the ensuing Middle East peace process between Israel and its other neighbors, principally the Palestinians.

The significance of the peace relationship between Egypt and Israel, therefore, extends beyond the specific written commitments in the actual peace treaty itself or in the lengthy list of “normalization” agreements signed between the parties after the peace treaty, or even the day-to-day issues arising between the two countries in the diplomatic and political spheres. Its relative weight and authority holds a place of its own as the anchor for Middle East peace, which cannot be underestimated or minimized, whatever might be the practical or volatile state of the day-to-day relations.

Effect of Recent Developments

In light of recent developments in Egypt and in the Sinai Peninsula, in particular, some concern is being voiced as to whether the integrity of the peace relationship between Egypt and Israel can remain intact. This concern stems from a number of considerations:

  • The nature, composition and ideological basis of the newly formed Egyptian administration and leadership, composed as it is of the Muslim Brotherhood, some of whose leaders and spokesmen have called for a review or even revocation of the peace treaty with Israel and reconsideration of Egypt’s alliances.7
  • Within the process of change taking place in Egypt, the lack of security control by the Egyptian military in Sinai has enabled a situation of enhanced terror activity there. Terrorists affiliated with al-Qaeda and the larger “global jihad” network have penetrated the area, exploiting the government’s neglect of the region and inflaming the local population’s feelings of disenfranchisement.8

Legal Parameters between Egypt and Israel

The basic, legal, and permanent parameters guiding Egypt and Israel in their relationship are set out in the peace treaty.

Establishment of Peace

The termination of the state of war and installation of a state of peace in Article I of the treaty9 created a new legal and political framework extending beyond the concept of mere contractual terminology.

Threats of “revoking” the peace treaty would, in effect, be legally questionable as long as the relationship between the parties does not revert back into a “state of war” through specific belligerent activity in stark violation of the treaty – a highly unlikely possibility given the realities of the region.

Territorial Inviolability

The mutual recognition of the inviolability of the international boundary between them in Article II of the peace treaty includes the obligation to “respect the territorial integrity of the other.”10 In Article III they further undertake:

to ensure that acts or threats of belligerency, hostility, or violence do not originate from and are not committed from within its territory, or by any forces subject to its control or by any other forces stationed on its territory, against the population, citizens or property of the other Party. Each Party also undertakes to refrain from organizing, instigating, inciting, assisting or participating in acts or threats of belligerency, hostility, subversion or violence against the other Party, anywhere.11

The significance of these obligations is clear in that both states are obligated to prevent the use of their territory for acts of terror against the other, and are reciprocally obligated not to violate their mutual boundary.

In the context of the present situation in Sinai and the enhanced terror activity by such organizations as Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and al-Qaeda, this means that Egypt has the full sovereign responsibility and obligation to act in order to prevent any such terror activity which could pose a threat to Israel.

Assuming that the Egyptian leadership is willing, clearly the question remains as to whether Egypt has the military capability to fulfill its treaty obligation in light of the prevailing circumstances and treaty limitations.

Demilitarization of Sinai

The Security Annex to the peace treaty places limitations on the type of forces that Egypt may maintain in Sinai, beginning with the stationing of one mechanized infantry division and its military installations and field fortifications in Zone A closest to the Suez Canal.12 In Zone B in central Sinai “Egyptian border units of four battalions equipped with light weapons and wheeled vehicles will provide security and supplement the civil police.”13 In Zone C, the area closest to the border with Israel, the agreed-upon limitations prevent any military presence, and only “Egyptian civil police armed with light weapons will perform normal police functions within this Zone.”14

This semi-demilitarization of Sinai, while considered necessary and agreed-upon in 1979 inter alia as one of the measures to instill confidence between the parties after the long period of belligerency between them, clearly did not visualize the possibility that thirty years hence the area would become a haven for arms smuggling and terror infrastructure.

Review of Security Limitations

In order to cope with just such eventualities, the treaty enables various mechanisms to handle situations that crop up on an ad-hoc basis within its day-to-day implementation. At the routine level, the treaty provides the framework for contacts between the military authorities of the parties within the “Liaison System” established in Article VII of the Security Annex, intended inter alia:

to provide an effective method to assess progress in the implementation of obligations under the present Annex and to resolve any problem that may arise in the course of implementation, and refer other unresolved matters to the higher military authorities of the two countries respectively for consideration.15

Additionally, review or amendment of security arrangements is provided for in Article IV of the Security Annex, according to which:

The security arrangements provided for in paragraphs 1 and 2 of this Article may at the request of either party be reviewed and amended by mutual agreement of the Parties.

Even here, there is no express need for formal amendment to the peace treaty itself, and any such review or amendment of the security arrangements could be on an ad-hoc basis, to meet the immediate requirements of the moment.

One may assume that the introduction by Egypt of ground and aerial forces into Sinai in order to cope with lawlessness and terror, following a recent attack on an Egyptian police post and the murder of Egyptian police officers by jihadi terrorists operating in Sinai, was duly coordinated between the military authorities of Egypt and Israel within the above frameworks.

However, various news reports16 have suggested that Egypt has moved armored forces into Sinai without first notifying the Israelis. Clearly, any changes in the level of forces or weapons of the Egyptian army in Sinai without Israel’s agreement would constitute a violation of the treaty.

In this context, one may assume that it is clear both to Egypt and to Israel that while an inherent right of self-defense potentially exists when faced with armed terrorist attacks from Sinai into Israel, the use of such a right could pose a very serious military and political dilemma to both sides, since neither Egypt nor Israel would want to see the Sinai issue deteriorate into a threat to the very integrity of the peace relationship between them.

Conclusion

The integrity of the peace relationship between Israel and Egypt, and the fact that a generation of Egyptians and Israelis have grown up without the threat of war, violence, or terror within the context of peace between the two countries, are both central factors that, by all logic, should rise above momentary political trends and emotions.

The present challenge and threat to the integrity of the peace treaty posed by the evolving character of Sinai, from the quiet and remote buffer zone of 1979 into a staging post for terror and violence, is a challenge that can and should be handled within the context of the peace treaty. It is perhaps the most serious test of the strength of that treaty and of the capability of Egypt to prove to the world that even in an era of extreme political change, its interest is in protecting and maintaining the integrity of the peace relationship with Israel.

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Notes

1. See the formal declaration by the Arab League states of their intention to invade Palestine at: http://www.mfa.gov.il/MFA/Foreign+Relations/Israels+Foreign+Relations+since+1947/1947-1974/5+Arab+League+declaration+on+the+invasion+of+Pales.htm
2. Israel-Egypt Armistice Agreement, February 24, 1949, http://www.mfa.gov.il/MFA/Foreign+Relations/Israels+Foreign+Relations+since+1947/1947-1974/Israel-Egypt+Armistice+Agreement.htm. See Article II(2): “No element of the land, sea or air military or para-military forces of either Party, including non-regular forces, shall commit any warlike or hostile act against the military or para-military forces of the other Party, or against civilians in territory under the control of that Party; or shall advance beyond or pass over for any purpose whatsoever the Armistice Demarcation Line
3. On 1 September 1951 the Security Council adopted a resolution calling upon Egypt to terminate restrictions on the passage of ships through the Suez Canal: Security Council, 6th yr., 558th mtg., para. 5, S/2298/Rev.l
4. The Interim Agreement between Israel and Egypt, September 4, 1975, http://www.mfa.gov.il/MFA/Peace+Process/Guide+to+the+Peace+Process/Interim+Agreement+between+Israel+and+Egypt.htm
5. Camp David Accords, September 17, 1978, http://www.mfa.gov.il/MFA/Peace+Process/Guide+to+the+Peace+Process/Camp+David+Accords.htm
6. http://www.mfa.gov.il/MFA/Peace+Process/Guide+to+the+Peace+Process/Israel-Egypt+Peace+Treaty.htm
7. Jack Khoury, “Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood: Fate of Israel Peace Treaty May Be Decided in Referendum,” Ha’aretz, January 1, 2012, http://www.haaretz.com/news/middle-east/egypt-s-muslim-brotherhood-fate-of-israel-peace-treaty-may-be-decided-in-referendum-1.404889. See also the February 2011 Pechter Poll in which 38 percent of Egyptians favored ending the peace treaty, while 31 percent disagreed. http://www.pechterpolls.com/pmep-egypt-poll-february-2011/
8. See Prof. Itamar Rabinovitch, “The Sinai Powder Keg,” Project Syndicate, August 13, 2012, http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/the-sinai-powder-keg-by-itamar-rabinovich
9. “The state of war between the Parties will be terminated and peace will be established between them upon the exchange of instruments of ratification of this Treaty.” http://www.mfa.gov.il/MFA/Peace+Process/Guide+to+the+Peace+Process/Israel-Egypt+Peace+Treaty.htm
10. Ibid., Article II
11. Ibid., Article III(2
12. Ibid., Annex I, Article II(1)a
13. Ibid., Article II(1)b
14. Ibid., Article II(1)c
15. Ibid., Article IV(1)
16. Dennis Ross, “Egypt’s New Leaders Must Accept Reality,” Washington Post, August 19, 2012, http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/dennis-ross-egypts-new-leaders-must-accept-reality/2012/08/19/46e60810-e8ad-11e1-936a-b801f1abab19_story.html; Eli Bardenstein, “Netanyahu to Cairo: Remove Egyptian Tanks from Sinai,” Ma’ariv, August 21, 2012, http://www.nrg.co.il/online/1/ART2/396/980.html?hp=1&cat=404

About Amb. Alan Baker

Amb. Alan Baker, Director of the Institute for Contemporary Affairs at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, participated in the negotiation and drafting of the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians, as well as agreements and peace treaties with Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon. He served as legal adviser and deputy director-general of Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and as Israel's ambassador to Canada.