Gov't split on Egyptian troop boost

Livni expected to support more Egyptian forces on border; Defense Ministry to oppose move.

security fence 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
security fence 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A dispute is brewing between the security establishment and the Foreign Ministry over whether to allow Egypt to introduce additional troops along the Gaza-Egyptian border, The Jerusalem Post has learned. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is expected to present her ministry's recommendation to allow the Egyptians to increase the number of soldiers and security guards along the border, at a special meeting scheduled for Wednesday at the Prime Minister's Office. At the same time, government officials told the Post that Maj.-Gen. (res.) Amos Gilad, the powerful head of the Defense Ministry's Diplomatic-Security Bureau, remained opposed to allowing Egypt to expand its deployment along the Gaza-Egyptian border beyond the 750 troops already there. The officials said Gilad believed the Egyptians currently had enough troops deployed along the border and that what was needed were not additional troops, but an increase in motivation. "We believe that the troops can do more than what they are currently doing," said a defense official who sided with Gilad. "It is not a question of capability, but of determination." Officials said Gilad and his staff were in daily contact with Cairo and particularly with Egyptian Intelligence Minister Omar Suleiman, who is in charge of strategic relations with Israel. Following the collapse of the border fence in Gaza, the officials said, Egypt repeated its long-standing claim that it needed additional forces along the border to seal it, thus preventing terrorists from infiltrating the Sinai Desert en route to Israel. Up until the border breach, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said a number of times in private discussions that the Egyptians had enough troops along the border to patrol it, and that what was missing were not more troops, but the will to use the ones already stationed there effectively. It is not clear whether his position has changed since the breach in the fence. While Gilad was opposed to more troops, other defense officials said that a "new reality" had been created in the Gaza Strip after Hamas broke down the border wall with Egypt. They called this new reality possible grounds for allowing the Egyptians to reinforce the soldiers currently deployed along the Philadelphi Corridor. "There is room to rethink our policy," a senior defense official told the Post. "This is something that is coming up in security assessments but has yet to be finalized." Diplomatic officials said the Foreign Ministry's support for the idea was not unequivocal, and was dependent on the Egyptians coming up with a "comprehensive" plan for securing the border. "We have to be sure that they are serious about this matter and are willing to ensure that the border will be operated according to their obligations," one official said. The officials said the ministry's agreement was for the troops to be stationed only along the border with Gaza, and not elsewhere in the Sinai, or along the Egyptian-Israeli border. Up until two weeks ago, the ministry was largely opposed to letting the Egyptians introduce more troops, arguing that Israel was reluctant to open up the Camp David accords that stipulated exactly how many troops, and with what weaponry, could be deployed in various parts of the Sinai. The fear was of a "slippery slope" that could weaken the security elements of the Camp David accords. The events of the last two weeks, one official explained, have forced a change in the ministry's position. Government officials said the final decision would most likely be that of the Defense Ministry, which, along with the Prime Minister's Office, steers policy toward Egypt more than the Foreign Ministry. Meanwhile, officials said Tuesday that the defense establishment planned to reexamine the current timeline for construction of the West Bank security fence in response to Monday's suicide attack in Dimona, which killed one Israeli and wounded 40. On Tuesday, Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack and said that the two bombers had come from Hebron, not the Gaza Strip. The IDF operated in Hebron late Monday night and arrested several of the bombers' relatives. According to defense officials, construction on the 26-kilometer southern section of the West Bank security fence was initially scheduled to begin in 2009; however, following Monday's bombing, the defense establishment planned to reassess the situation. Officials said that the ultimate decision would lie in the hands of Defense Ministry Director-General Pinhas Buchris. The annual budget for the fence is NIS 2.25 billion. The funds are mostly earmarked for the Jerusalem envelope, which has yet to be completed due to petitions against the route that have been filed over the years to the High Court of Justice. The ministry's plan was to use the funds to complete the Jerusalem section of the fence and only then begin work on the southern section that remains open, allowing Palestinians from the Hebron area free access to southern Israel.