Will the Egyptian military be permitted to remilitarize the Sinai? Since Palestinian and Egyptian terrorists crossed into Israel from Sinai on August 18 and murdered eight Israelis this has been a central issue under discussion at senior echelons of the government and the IDF.
Under the terms of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, Egypt is prohibited from deploying military forces in the Sinai. Israel must approve any Egyptian military mobilization in the area. Today, Egypt is asking to permanently deploy its forces in the Sinai. Such a move requires an amendment to the treaty.
Supported by the Obama administration, the Egyptians say they need to deploy forces in the Sinai in order to rein in and defeat the jihadist forces now running rampant throughout the peninsula. Aside from attacking Israel, these jihadists have openly challenged Egyptian governmental control over the territory.
So far the Israeli government has given conflicting responses to the Egyptian request. Defense Minister Ehud Barak told The Economist last week that he supports the deployment of Egyptian forces. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said Sunday that he would consider such deployment but that Israel should not rush into amending the peace treaty with Egypt.
Saturday Barak tempered his earlier statement, claiming that no decision had been made about Egyptian deployment in the Sinai.
The government's confused statements about Egyptian troop deployments indicate that at a minimum, the government is unsure of the best course of action. This uncertainty owes in large part to confusion about Egypt's intentions.
Egypt's military leaders do have an interest in preventing jihadist attacks on Egyptian installations and other interests in the Sinai. But does that interest translate into an interest in defending Israeli installations and interests? If the interests overlap, then deploying Egyptian forces may be a reasonable option. If Egypt's military leaders view these interests as mutually exclusive, then Israel has no interest in such a deployment.
ISRAEL'S CONFUSION over Egypt's strategic direction and interests echoes its only recently abated confusion over Turkey's strategic direction in the aftermath of the Islamist AKP Party's rise to power in 2002. Following the US's lead, despite Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's hostile rhetoric regarding Israel, Israel continued to believe that he and his government were interested in maintaining Turkey's strategic alliance with Israel. That belief began unraveling with Erdogan's embrace of Hamas in January 2006 and his willingness to turn a blind eye to Iranian use of Turkish territory to transfer arms to Hezbollah during the war in July and August 2006.
Still, due to US support for Erdogan, Israel continued to sell Turkey arms until last year. Israel only recognized that Turkey had transformed itself from a strategic ally into a strategic enemy after Erdogan sponsored the terror flotilla to Gaza in May 2010.
As was the case with Turkey under Erdogan, Israel's confusion over Egypt's intentions has nothing to do with the military rulers' behavior. Like Erdogan, the Egyptian junta isn't sending Israel mixed signals.
Former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was never a strategic ally to Israel the way that Turkey was before Erdogan. However, Mubarak believed that maintaining a quiet border with Israel, combating the Muslim Brotherhood and keeping Hamas at arm's length advanced his interests. Mubarak's successors in the junta do not perceive their interests in the same way.
To the contrary, since they overthrew Mubarak in February, the generals ruling Egypt have made clear that their interest in cultivating ties with Israel's enemies - from Iran to the Muslim Brotherhood - far outweighs their interest in maintaining a cooperative relationship with Israel.
From permitting Iranian naval ships to traverse the Suez Canal for the first time in 30 years to opening the border with Hamas-ruled Gaza to its openly hostile and conspiratorial reaction to the August 18 terrorist attack on Israel from the Sinai, there can be little doubt about the trajectory of Egypt's relations with Israel.
BUT JUST as was the case with Turkey - and again, largely because of American pressure - Israel's leaders are wary of accepting that the strategic landscape of our relationship with Egypt has changed radically and that the rules that applied under Mubarak no longer apply.
After Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in August 2005, terrorists in Gaza and Sinai took down the border. Gaza was immediately flooded with sophisticated armaments. Then-prime minister Ariel Sharon made a deal with Mubarak to deploy Egyptian forces to the Sinai to rebuild the border and man the crossing point at Rafah. While there were problems with the agreement, given the fact that Mubarak shared Israel's interests, the move was not unjustified.
Today this is not the case. The junta wants to permanently deploy forces to the Sinai and consequently is pushing to amend the treaty. The generals' request comes against the backdrop of populist calls from across Egypt's political spectrum demanding the cancellation of the peace treaty.
If Israel agrees to renegotiate the treaty, it will lower the political cost of a subsequent Egyptian abrogation of the agreement. This is the case because Israel itself will be on record acknowledging that the treaty does not meet its current needs.
Beyond that, there is the nature of the Egyptian military itself, which was exposed during and in the aftermath of the August 18 attack. At a minimum, the Egyptian and Palestinian terrorists who attacked Israel that day did so with no interference from Egyptian forces deployed along the border.
The fact that they shot into Israel from Egyptian military positions indicates that the Egyptian forces on the ground did not simply turn a blind eye to what was happening. Rather, it is reasonable to assume that they lent a helping hand to the terror operatives.
Furthermore, the hostile response of the Egyptian military to Israel's defensive operations to end the terror attack indicates that at a minimum, the higher echelons of the military are not sympathetically disposed towards Israel's right to defend its citizens.
Both the behavior of the forces on the ground and of their commanders in Cairo indicates that if the Egyptian military is permitted to deploy its forces to the Sinai, those forces will not serve any helpful purpose for Israel.
THE MILITARY'S demonstrated antagonism toward Israel, the uncertainty of Egypt's political future, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the hatred of Israel shared by all Egyptian political factions all indicate that Israel will live to regret it if it permits the Egyptian military to mobilize in the Sinai. Not only will Egyptian soldiers not prevent terrorist attacks against Israel, their presence along the border will increase the prospect of war with Egypt.
Egypt's current inaction against anti-Israel terror operatives in the Sinai has already caused the IDF to increase its force levels along the border. If Egypt is permitted to mass its forces in the Sinai, then the IDF will be forced to respond by steeply increasing the size of its force mobilized along the border. And the proximity of the two armies could easily be exploited by Egyptian populist forces to foment war.
In his interview with The Economist, Barak claimed bizarrely, "Sometimes you have to subordinate strategic considerations to tactical needs." It is hard to think of any case in human history when a nation's interests were served by winning a battle and losing a war. And the stakes with Egypt are too high for Israel's leaders to be engaging in such confused and imbecilic thinking.
The dangers emanating from post-Mubarak Egypt are enormous and are only likely to grow. Israel cannot allow its desire for things to be different to cloud its judgment. It must accept the situation for what it is and act accordingly.