Back to Egypt?

Israeli leaders sometimes like to take what they hope will be cheap shortcuts to peace and security.

Olmert loves life 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Olmert loves life 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Egyptians have a saying: "He who drinks from the waters of the Nile will return to drink her waters yet again." This is a pleasant saying which also dovetails with another Egyptian aphorism - "Egypt is the mother of the world." But as someone who lived and studied in Egypt, the waters of the Nile are not always great for one's health, and the land of the pyramids might not just be the center of the universe, even for a would-be "master-of-the-universe" like Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Olmert, who once voted against the peace treaty with Egypt, is now seriously pushing the option of relying on Egypt to police the Gaza Strip. This is a dramatic change in his view of Egypt, but it also ignores the basic truths about Egyptian attitudes and policy toward Gaza:
  • Gaza was always the preferred invasion route from Egypt into Israel from the time of the biblical Exodus through the 1948 War of Independence, when King Farouk's troops attacked in separate thrusts at Tel Aviv and Jerusalem;
  • Gamal Abdel Nasser used Gaza as Egypt's main forward base from 1952-1956, sending in fedayeen to sow terror inside Israel without giving any citizenship or even basic rights to the people of Gaza;
  • From 1993 through 2003, the Egyptian government of Hosni Mubarak consistently encouraged Yasser Arafat to take intransigent negotiating positions and even the use of full-scale warfare in 1996 (as shown by documents captured by Israel at Orient House in 2002);
  • From 2000-2008, the Mubarak government has done little or nothing to stop terror smuggling into the Gaza Strip from Sinai (its policies stand in stark contrast to the quiet cooperation Israel enjoys with Jordan in policing borders). Indeed, conversations with Israeli security officials on the subject almost always include a long and detailed off-the-record comment describing evidence that Egyptian officials have sometimes cooperated with terror smuggling. THE SIMPLE truth is that Egypt - from Farouk to Nasser and Mubarak - has never wanted to turn Gaza into a flowering center of Palestinian hi-technology or civil authority. It might have been different with Anwar Sadat. Another simple truth is that Mubarak or his security chief Omar Suleiman will always find it easier to turn the internal frustrations and religious tensions of the Hamas-led Gaza Strip against Israel, rather than taming them. Trying to get Egypt to police a Hamas-led Gaza should remind us of Yitzhak Rabin's brilliant comment that he would get Arafat's Fatah to fight Hamas without recourse to the High Court of Justice or B'Tselem. Rabin was wrong on this point as on so many other strategic points, including his view that terrorism was not really a strategic danger to Israel. But he was not alone. In 1982, Ariel Sharon thought he could use the Lebanese Maronite Christian Phalange militia to police Palestinian refugee camps. The Maronite militia carried out the Sabra and Shatilla massacres, killing more than 300, which blackened Israel's name. As disastrous as Rabin's and Sharon's reliance on Arab surrogates was in 1982 and 1993, introducing Egyptian soldiers into Gaza might be even worse. They would be a human shield against Israeli intervention, or even a kind of trip wire that unites the entire Arab world against an "aggression" against Egyptians. Israeli leaders sometimes like to take what they hope will be cheap shortcuts to peace and security, but then they get lost and we all end up paying. Olmert likes to think of himself as the successor of Rabin and Sharon, but that doesn't mean he has to copy their mistakes. Perhaps he would do better to pay attention to the Bible's injunction (Deuteronomy 17:16) to leaders of Israel: "And he shall not lead the nation back to Egypt." The writer, a research fellow at the Shalem Center, was the Schusterman Visiting Professor at Washington University for 2007-8. He has also served as a special adviser to Israeli delegations to peace talks in 1991-1992 and as strategic affairs adviser to the Ministry of Public Security, editing secret PLO archives captured in Jerusalem.