Israeli officials said on Sunday they would resist any Egyptian attempts to reopen the military arrangements under the countries’ historic peace deal, despite the rapidly deteriorating security situation in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
However, following a series of attacks staged by militants in the Sinai, including a raid that killed an Israeli soldier last week, Israel may have no choice but to allow Egypt to beef up its forces in the largely demilitarized border area.
Friday’s shooting is likely to fuel new Egyptian calls to reopen the peace treaty. In recent years, as shadowy militant groups have grown more active in the Sinai, Egyptian security officials have said they need to be allowed more firepower to bring the area under control. Ansar Jerusalem, a group inspired by al-Qaeda that is hostile to both Israel and Egypt, claimed responsibility for the latest attack.
For now, Israel is standing tough. Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs Avigdor Lieberman said on Sunday that Israel would not agree to re-evaluate the terms of the peace deal.
“There is no chance that Israel will agree to any kind of change,” he told Israel Radio. “The Egyptians shouldn’t try to delude themselves or delude others, and they should not rely on this demand.”
Lieberman said troop strength was not the issue and suggested the Egyptian military was just not prepared to tackle the challenge.
“The problem in Sinai is not the size of the forces, it is their readiness to fight, to put pressure and to carry out the job as is needed,” he said.
The 1979 peace accord, the first between Israel and an Arab country, has been a foundation for regional stability for three decades.
For Egypt, it brought the return of the Sinai, captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war, and access to US aid and weapons. For Israel, it allowed the military to divert precious resources to volatile fronts with Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinians.
However, this arrangement has been jolted by the growing unrest in the Sinai since an uprising toppled longtime Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak last year. Friday’s attack was the third deadly border raid since Mubarak’s ouster.
Behind the tough Israeli rhetoric, there are already signs of change. Under the agreement, Egypt is limited to light police functions in a roughly 30km strip of the Sinai next to Israel’s border. In many cases, these forces have been outgunned by militants equipped with heavy weapons, rockets and mortars.
On several occasions, Israel has allowed the Egyptians to bring in extra troops, most recently after militants killed 16 Egyptian soldiers in an Aug. 5 clash.
Israel welcomed a subsequent crackdown by Egypt, which deployed armored personnel carriers and attack helicopters to root out militants in the Sinai this summer. However, it balked once Egypt sent in tanks, some of which were removed after Israel complained.
While the tanks were not aimed at Israel and it does not consider them a strategic threat, Israeli officials said they were concerned about the precedent and that the move should have been coordinated. Israeli defense officials consider the peace agreement a matter of principle, and believe that bending its provisions could cheapen its significance.