Security and Defense: Borderline cooperation

Egypt's military build-up has the defense establishment looking askance at its official southern ally.

mubarak olmert 298 88ap (photo credit: AP [file])
mubarak olmert 298 88ap
(photo credit: AP [file])
The gunbattle along the southern border last Friday, in which the IDF killed two Egyptian police officers, brought to surface an old-new threat Israel may be facing. While Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was off in Sharm el-Sheikh this week apologizing to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak for the shooting and promising that a thorough investigation of the incident would be conducted, some members of the defense establishment were back home wondering whether Egypt was really the good neighbor Israel had been making it out to be. Egypt's defense budget has been growing at a steady pace over the past few years, with its military expenditures estimated at 20-35 percent of its gross national product. According to the "Middle East Military Balance," compiled by Tel Aviv's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, Egypt has 450,000 regular troops, compared to Israel's 186,000. In addition, Egypt has been acquiring some of the most advanced US-manufactured weaponry, such as F-16 combat jets, Abrams tanks and Apache helicopters. This build-up of troops and materiel raises serious questions - a high-ranking defense official told The Jerusalem Post this week - about Egypt's intentions. "This is certainly a point of concern for the defense establishment," said the official, who asked to remain anonymous. "We can't understand what they need such a strong military for. They say it is to protect Egypt from Libya and Sudan, but we see it as a potential threat to Israel." In other words, whether the dead officers had really been in the act of pursuing drug smugglers or suspected terrorists - as Egypt has claimed - is not that relevant in the grand scheme of things. According to the official, Egypt has done almost everything possible to weaken the Camp David accord it signed with Israel in 1978, most recently requesting to move a whole division into the Sinai desert following Israel's withdrawal from Gaza, with emphasis on the Philadelphi corridor that divides Palestinian-Rafah from Egyptian-Rafah. In the end, Israel only agreed to allow Egypt - which, under the terms of the peace agreement is forbidden from stationing troops in the demilitarized Sinai - to deploy a small border police force (750) to prevent the infiltration of Palestinians from Gaza and through the Sinai into Israel. "To say we have a good and strong peace with Egypt would be an exaggeration," the official said, predicting that as long as Mubarak remains in power, a conflict with Israel is unlikely. "But the moment the Mubarak regime falls, and the Muslim Brotherhood takes control of the government and the military," he said, "we could find ourselves facing a new front." THIS ASSESSMENT jibes with the warnings of Likud MK Yuval Steinitz, head of the previous Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. For years, Steinitz has been claiming that Egypt's entire military buildup is directed at Israel, pointing to the movement of most of its major military bases from the southern part of the country to the north along the Suez Canal. "Why are they investing massive resources in procurement and development of weaponry, when they already have superiority over all other Arab and African countries?" Steinitz challenged in a conversation with the 'Post' on Thursday. "[After all,] they are in no existential danger, nor have any major border disputes." Steinitz also stressed Egyptian drills involving mock battles with Israel. "All of their military exercises and doctrine are Israel-oriented," he said, indicating satisfaction with his having prevented former prime minister Ariel Sharon from allowing Egypt to deploy a division-scale force along the entire southern border with Israel following disengagement. "Just imagine if, last week, it hadn't been two Egyptian soldiers, but an entire armored battalion entering Israel," he hypothesized. "The outcome would have been much different." Another sore point in Israeli-Egyptian relations, he said, has been the Arab country's actively siding with the Palestinian Authority. Yet, according to Middle East scholar and author Daniel Pipes (an interview with who appears in today's Upfront), the reason the Palestinian issue has been handled so delicately by Mubarak is because of its potential challenge to his regime, since anti-Israel sentiment in Egypt at the grass-roots level has intensified in the post-peace-treaty period.