Last week, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy issued a report that Egypt was seeking Russia’s advanced S-300 air-defense system, MiG fighter jets, and Kornet anti-tank weapons (which hobbled Israel somewhat in the 2006 Lebanon War).
The new weapons are reportedly being sought in the context of a $2 billion arms deal with Russia concluded last month, which Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are financing.
The report says that the transfer of such weapons could not only degrade Israel’s military edge over Egypt, but also undermine the Camp David peace treaty. Many of the weapons that are part of the deal, such as attack helicopters, are crucial to anti-terrorist missions in the Sinai which Israel whole-heartedly supports.
But the report implied that the above-mentioned weapons are not needed for anti-terrorist operations, which could lead Israel to ask uncomfortable questions about whether Egypt’s intentions in its relationship with Israel remain entirely peaceful, or at least undermine trust between the countries.
Does the purchase of these new weapons violate or at least undermine the Camp David treaty? A similar issue arose in the summer of 2012 when Egypt, under then-president Mohammed Morsi, contemplated amending the treaty to allow Egypt to permanently maintain more forces in the Sinai.
There were even implied threats that Egypt might unilaterally amend or violate the treaty, although the treaty has no provisions for being canceled or unilaterally amended. Rather, it has provisions only for mutually agreed amendments.
Egypt could try to invoke a fundamental change of circumstances in terms of the need to fight terrorism in the Sinai, but under international law this generally is not grounds for terminating a treaty. International law specifically states that such a cause cannot be grounds for terminating a treaty which establishes a boundary – which the Camp David treaty does.
Weaker states like Ukraine might not be able to enforce their sovereignty or treaties they are party to, but Israel certainly can.
Still, in 2012, many in Israel were ready to permit amending the treaty to allow Egypt to better fight terrorism in the Sinai, despite the request coming from Morsi, since this was an Israeli interest and the treaty was previously amended in 2005 as part of the Gaza withdrawal.
However, the transfer of these Russian weapons and their potential use in the Sinai or beyond is not necessarily in Israel’s interest, even though Israel instinctively trusts Egyptian Army chief Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi far more than Morsi.
The question Egypt must answer regarding maintaining the legitimacy and balance of the treaty is: What is the purpose of these weapons? If it is to send a message to the US that it cannot dictate policy to Egypt, since Egypt can get weapons from other sources, then maybe the development does not hurt Israel, and Israel does not need to view their purchase and potential use in the Sinai as a violation of the treaty.
This could especially be true if Egypt coordinates the deployment of any such new weapons with Israel.
Still, it could be important for Israel to quickly demand official clarifications if the purchases go through. Otherwise, even as Egypt has no unilateral right under international law to amend the treaty, it could claim that Israel has acquiesced to a change in the status quo by its silence.
No matter how much Israel trusts Sisi, maintaining the treaty’s provisions, other than by explicit mutual agreement to changes, could be crucial in ensuring continued security on the Egyptian border.