The recent clashes on the Egyptian-Israeli border have again provoked debate about modifying the peace agreement between the two neighbors in order to allow for greater Egyptian military presence in Sinai. Not only are Egyptian officials increasingly inclinded to believe that should happen, but so are their Israeli counterparts.
The agreement that was signed in 1979 to end the state of war between the two countries kept a large part of Sinai without sufficient security to maintain stability.
According to the agreement, the peninsula is divided into sections A, B and C. It allows only a limited number of armed police forces to protect section C, which is adjacent to Israel.
Al-Masry Al-Youm interviewed Mohamed Bassiouny, Egypt's former ambassador to Israel from 1986 to 2000, who believes that it has become imperative to reconsider some of the agreement's clauses, and that the onus is now on Israel if it intends to preserve peace with Egypt.
Al-Masry-Al-Youm: How would the recent border clashes play a role in modifying the peace treaty in terms of security arrangements?
Bassiouny: I think it is an opportunity for Egypt to exploit what happened in amending Article IV of the treaty that relates to security arrangements. According to the treaty, Sinai is divided into three areas, namely West Sinai (A), central Sinai (B) and East Sinai (C), where the clashes took place. This last region along the border line with Israel includes Taba, Sharm el-Sheikh and Rafah, the gate to the Gaza Strip.
According to the treaty, the Egyptian armed forces secure sections A and B with 26,000 equipped soldiers, while section C is secured by police. And despite the fact that the treaty allows Egypt to put any number of police personnel in this section, they are poorly armed, lack military experience and may make mistakes. This allows the Bedouins, who are better armed and more familiar with the region, to infiltrate the border.
Therefore, I propose amending Article IV to allow Egypt to deploy army troops specialized in securing borders, especially as the fourth paragraph of that article allows for the Egyptian and Israeli parties to negotiate the modification of security arrangements.
Egypt recently benefited from this paragraph when it sent troops to East Sinai to hunt down armed groups in the operation known as “The Eagle.”
Strengthening the border guards with permanent army forces has become inevitable, and Egypt can redraw the map of section C, which extends over an area of 15,000 square kilometers.
Al-Masry: Observers believe Israel could make use of the incident to convince the international community that its security is at risk because Egypt is unable to protect the Sinai?
Bassiouny: What happened cannot be borne by Egypt alone, because it began on Israeli territory and the Israeli security forces are responsible. The treaty allows Israel to place 4000 soldiers who are better trained than the Egyptian police forces on the opposite side. Israel should accept amended security terms instead of pointing its finger to Egypt.
Al-Masry: Do you believe the military council is pursuing the same subservient policies of Mubarak in dealing with Israel?
Bassiouny: So far there is no change, for when the council took over power in February, it announced that Egypt respects all international treaties and the peace treaty with Israel. And as long as Israel does not violate it, the council will not, either.
Al-Masry: Do you see a contradiction in that the Mubarak regime withdrew the Egyptian ambassador to Israel twice before, whereas the government of the revolution did not do the same?
Bassiouny: I fully understand the frustration on the Egyptian street, but the situation now is complicated and does not allow for the withdrawal of the Egyptian ambassador. There is an opportunity for Egypt to amend the treaty and other strategic matters in the future, and this requires the presence of an ambassador.
The previous regime withdrew the ambassador in protest against the brutal Israeli practices in 1981 against the people of the Sabra and Shatila villages in southern Lebanon, and again in 2000, when I was ambassador during the second intifada.
Al-Masry: How do you see the Egyptian-Israeli relations in the near future?
Bassiouny: The ball is now in the Israeli court. Since the signing of the peace treaty, relations have been contingent on progress in the peace process. If Israel violates the treaty in any way, it will be the loser.
Al-Masry: Do you interpret the closure of border crossings between Egypt and Israel as an attempt by the Egyptian government to suspend the QIZ agreement?
Bassiouny: I think that this was done for security reasons, and that re-opening the crossings is in the interest of the Egyptian economy.
Relations among nations are based on mutual interests, not emotions. This agreement is very important to Egyptian factories. For example, 70 percent of the Egyptian textile exports to the world contain an Israeli component, and suspending the agreement would cost the Egyptian economy substantial losses.
Al-Masry: What about the issue of exporting gas to Israel?
Bassiouny: We must adjust the gas prices to match the increase in world prices. I expect Israel to accept this because 47 percent of its natural gas needs come from Egypt. Israel has no choice.
Translated from the Arabic Edition