Written by Dr. Ehud Eilam
The Sinai Peninsula has been the main battlefield in most of the wars between Egypt and Israel. The latter seized a small part of Sinai during the 1948-1949 war, and then most of it in the 1956 war. All of Sinai was soon after returned to Egypt without obtaininga peace agreement. In the 1967 war, Israel conquered the entire Sinai, but this time it was returned to Egypt as part of the 1979 peace treaty.
Israel has no intention of re-conquering any part of Sinai. Israelis do wish to go there, but only as tourists. In fact, hundreds of thousands of Israelis have been visiting the peninsula since it was given back to Egypt in the early 1980s, to the delight of the Egyptian tourist industry. Many Israelis would like to continue vacationing in Sinai, and this is most welcome by Egypt. Encouraging tourism is now very important because its sharp decline in the wake of President Mubarak's fall has had a major negative impact on the Egyptian economy. (click map for enlarged version)
For Egypt, between 1948 and 1967, the Sinai served another important purpose, that of a forward defense area. Formal demilitarization of most of the Sinai, as called for by the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, has made it impossible for Egypt to use it in that role ever since.
Although Israel has no aggressive intentions toward Egypt, Cairo has invested heavily in its military since the signing of the peace treaty in 1979. These enormous expenditures were explained within Egypt as necessary preparation for a possible war with Israel. Restoring the Sinai as it was between in the years 1949-1967 - a forward staging area for the Egyptian military - is part of that thinking.
Israel's current policy is to thwart hostile plans of guerrilla and terrorist organizations using Sinai as a springboard to infiltrate into the south of Israel. Therefore, during the past months Israel allowed Egypt to increase its troop deployment in Sinai to deal with growing anarchy in the peninsula, exploited by renegade Bedouin residents and Islamist terror and guerrilla groups. The latter commit attacks, such as the one that occurred in the south of Israel on August 18 2011, when an Israeli bus was attacked and eight Israelis were killed and many wounded.
Launching rockets and mortar rounds into the south of Israel from Gaza is a constant provocation leading to retaliation against Hamas, which could entangle Egypt. This highlights the necessity of limiting as much as possible the smuggling of weapons including surface-to-air missiles that came from Libyan arsenals through Sinai to Gaza.
Israel is quite aware of and greatly concerned by the complexity and the dangers inherent in the Sinai situation. From the Egyptian point of view, the problems in Sinai could be an opportunity to bring about the end of the demilitarization of the peninsula. Israel cannot be sure Egypt would not turn a blind eye or even secretly support terrorist raids against Israel launched from Sinai, as long as the attacks themselves are not carried out in the peninsula which could damage the Egyptian tourist industry.
Israel must not accept Egypt using this as an excuse to circumvent the demilitarized status of Sinai, which has assured the south of Israel's safety from a conventional offensive for the last 30 years. Thus, after the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, Israel allowed the addition of 750 Egyptian troops in the Sinai specifically intended to combat smuggling.
Terrorist attacks against Israel emanating from the Egyptian-controlled Sinai would in fact give Egypt a compelling reason to send more units into Sinai under the pretense of increasing security. In actuality, further troops and equipment allowances granted by Israel would de facto end the demilitarization of the Sinai Peninsula stipulated in the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty.
A failure on Egypt's part to prevent a deadly attack emanating from the Sinai, particularly against Israeli civilians, could lead to mutual accusations. Israel would hold Egypt responsible, insisting that Egypt must improve the performance of her present forces in the peninsula. Egypt could very well retort that securing the Sinai areas close to the Israeli border requires permanent deployment of thousands of Egyptian troops with associated armored vehicles and artillery.
Egypt's internal instability will generate policy contradictions towards Sinai and Israel, in many ways resembling those existing between Pakistan and the United States over the last decade. Parts of the Egyptian government, military, and intelligence community would cooperate with Israel and other parts would likely assist Israel's enemies.
Clandestine encouragement of trouble in Sinai that may cause friction with Israel could also be motivated by Egyptian internal politics. Secular political candidates, trying to steal a step on the Muslim Brotherhood, seem eager to prove they are no less opposed to the peace treaty and future accommodations with Israel than their Islamist political rivals.
The Israeli dilemma - assuming it trusts Egypt's commitment to handle the problem of smuggling and the threat of terrorism from Sinai - is determining how many Egyptian troops should be allowed to enter the Sinai while preserving as much as possible the demilitarization of the area.
Ultimately, Israel may be forced to choose whether or not to allow major changes to the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty regarding the demilitarization of the Sinai. Egyptian remilitarization is a potential future cause of crisis between the two states while refusing to allow Egypt to do what it claims it needs to do to prevent terrorist activity in the peninsula may also leads to a future crisis. Israel's efforts to save the peace with Egypt and, simultaneously, to prevent terrorists from using the Sinai as a base from which to attack it could quite easily become a no-win situation. Maintaining the peace with Egypt may in fact destroy it.