Making Egyptian, Israeli and Palestinian Leaders Work Together

US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice will have her work cut out in her Middle East mission which starts Saturday, June 18. Her to-do list is topped by the Herculean task of making Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas work together on Israel’s forthcoming pull-out from the Gaza Strip and West Bank in the second half of August.

The Israeli plan has sparked bitter strife between the three leaders and a spate of inordinate demands.

David Welsh, former US ambassador in Cairo and head of the US state department’s Middle East desk, was due in Jerusalem and Cairo at the beginning of the week to revive Egyptian-Israel collaboration which has sunk into deep freeze.

The entire pull-out process is behind schedule. By now, with only 60 days to go before evacuation day, the three governments were to have signed documents formalizing the security tasks Egypt was to undertake, its supervision over Palestinian security and intelligence services in the Gaza Strip after Israel’s departure and the deployment of Egyptian forces along its Sinai border with the Gaza Strip.

These measures were to have provided the backbone of Washington’s plan for the CIA and MI6 to share security tasks in the Gaza Strip after Israel’s exit.

But long and arduous negotiations between Egypt and Israel at all levels, from prime minister and president down to generals led nowhere. Welsh was not on hand to break the icy stalemate with shuttle diplomacy. He was needed more urgently to attend to the new Lebanon crisis. (See separate article in this issue.)

The Egyptians took advantage of this hiatus and sent their intelligence chief General Omar Suleiman to Jerusalem Wednesday, June 15. He came to promote the list of exorbitant terms Cairo has laid down for its willingness to work with Israel over the withdrawal operation.


Egypt is exploiting pull-out for tactical gains against Israel


Israel cannot afford to meet these conditions because they would nullify key clauses of its 1979 peace treaty with Egypt, under which it was mutually accepted that Sinai would remain demilitarized after Israel restored the peninsula to Egypt.

Six Egyptian demands are listed here by DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Intelligence sources:

1. Egyptian troops must be deployed not merely along the Gaza border strip known as the Philadelphi Route, but the full length of the Egyptian-Israel border south of the Gaza Strip, i.e. from the Mediterranean up to the Red Sea. This deployment would bring thousands of Egyptian troops up to Israel’s border in direct contravention of the peace treaty.

2. Egypt wants to further contravene the treat by introducing soldiers armed with helicopter units which would be allowed freedom of flight over border areas.

3. Egypt also sought to bring tanks to the border region (on the pretext that infra-red instruments were needed for night surveillance). Now they have “moderated” their wish list to armored personnel carriers instead.

4. Egypt is claiming sweeping control of all the border crossings in Gaza (contesting the Palestinian demand) and denies Israel the right to post security personnel or carry out security screenings of arrivals. Egypt thinks Israeli customs officials should suffice.

5. Egypt is demanding that Israel open up an overland route for the passage of Palestinian goods, then people, from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank.

6. During the long months of haggling over Egypt’s astonishing demands, Israel gave some ground in the hope of winning Egypt’s military cooperation. But the Sharon government laid down a proviso that if the Egyptians violated the new deal and pumped more military strength than agreed into the Egyptian-Israel border sectors, Israel would be entitled to renounce the deal and restore military forces to the borders, including the Philadelphi strip.


Cairo despairs of Abba and Palestinians


Israeli security officials were dismayed to encounter Suleiman’s take-it-or-leave it response: Cairo, he said, would never consent to this proviso. Once Israeli left the Philadelphi route and Egyptian troops moved in, Israel would have forfeited the right to any changes.

Immediately after their conversation with the Egyptian official, Israeli security and intelligence officials called on prime minister Ariel Sharon to warn him of the perils of bowing to Egyptian demands.

They said Cairo was exploiting Israel’s evacuation operation for unacceptable strategic profit:

One, to annul the Sinai demilitarization clause of the 1979 peace treaty it signed with Israel after several wars.

Two, the Egyptians gave the game away by the types of equipment they want for their border troops. What they are after is a cross-border intelligence surveillance capability, a close eye on the Negev of southern Israel, said Sharon’s advisers. Israel takes a grave view of this stratagem because of the proximity of Israel’s main air bases, including facilities with a US military presence, to the border with Egypt.

General Suleiman, who also visited the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, took a dim view of the chances of bringing order to the mayhem he found there or of Mahmoud Abbas’ prospects of staying in office. He noted that the PA Chairman spends most of his time out of the country.

The visiting US secretary of state will indeed have her hands full.

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