July 13th, 2012
03:15 PM ET

Time to update the Israel-Egypt peace agreement?

Editor's note: Ofer Zalzberg is a Jerusalem-based senior analyst for Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group. The views expressed are solely those of the writer.

By Ofer Zalzberg, Special to CNN

Newly elected Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy’s call to “update” the Israel-Egypt peace agreement has stirred apprehension in Jerusalem. True, Morsy and other Brotherhood leaders have declared repeatedly that they will respect past agreements and that their focus is the treaty’s military annex.  It’s also true that this position was embraced by nearly all other presidential candidates; with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict such a visceral issue, the treaty isn’t likely to disappear from public debate. But long standing Israeli fears about the Brotherhood and its fraternal relationship with Hamas have provoked skepticism among Israelis about Morsy’s intentions in general and altering the annex in particular.

The 1979 treaty imposed limitations on the Egyptian military presence in the Sinai Peninsula in order to restore Egyptian sovereignty without sacrificing Israel’s strategic depth. Today, Cairo argues that formula has turned what was intended to be a buffer zone into a region of lawless mayhem; only the permanent stationing of additional Egyptian military forces, Egypt claims to Israeli interlocutors, will reverse the trend.

Jerusalem rejects this logic: it points to the several times it has endorsed temporary exceptions to the restrictions, and reminds Cairo that it’s free to deploy as many police in the area as it wants. The reigning assumption in Jerusalem is that Egyptian demands to update the annex are motivated by something quite different: the desire to reestablish its national honor by restoring its freedom of action on its own soil. But Jerusalem is highly resistant to relinquishing strategic depth and so waits for Egypt to address the emerging security vacuum in Sinai – certainly a concern for Cairo as well – without changing the treaty or its annex.

There are two chief outcomes to this posturing that could affect not just the military annex, but the future of the treaty as a whole. If the annex isn’t updated, Cairo could drag its feet in cracking down on the chaos, if only because such a move would carry internal costs, draw energy from other burning priorities, and remove the best argument that the government has for altering the formal arrangements. Israel could find itself bordering an anarchic region where Bedouin and others traffic in all kinds of commodities (including armaments and migrants) and militant groups thrive. If cross-border attacks multiply and Jerusalem continues to believe that Egypt is lax, Israel could find itself drawn into a diplomatic and operational morass; among the worst-case scenarios, it could find itself risking a military incursion despite the disastrous implications for Israeli-Egyptian relations.

An alternative would be for Egypt and Israel to negotiate an update of the military annex. Israel surely would object to allowing an unlimited Egyptian military presence in the peninsula, though it possibly could live with more modest modifications such as the permanent stationing of armored personnel carriers, especially if these changes are coupled with enhanced intelligence sharing.  Jerusalem worries that the failure of negotiations would jeopardize not only the legitimacy of the annex, but that of the treaty itself. It would therefore be very reluctant to enter such negotiations unless success was all but certain – perhaps secretly agreed in advance.

There’s more to this second scenario than meets the eye. It carries risks, but potentially could yield a significant return both for Israel and the cause of peace. For Jerusalem, the key feature of the deal would be that an increase in Egypt's military presence in the Sinai – with the attendant restoration of national honor – would come only as a result of Morsy’s and the Egyptian parliament’s endorsement of the amended annex and, by extension, of the peace agreement itself.  By gaining such assent – particularly should it come with the blessing of the Brotherhood's Supreme Guide – the status of the peace treaty would be enhanced not only among Egyptian officials, but also among public opinion – precisely at a time when it is growing increasingly relevant. Such a step eventually could serve as a precedent, with knock-on effects for Hamas’s opposition to non-Muslim sovereignty on Waqf land.

The choice that confronts Israel today is retaining the hard power of strategic depth and an effectively demilitarized Sinai versus pursuing the subtler gain of the Brotherhood’s political representatives endorsing the acceptability of a peace agreement with Israel. This would entail no small adjustment for the group and require a break with its past positions. But given Egypt’s huge socioeconomic problems, Egypt’s new president will be under pressure to deliver a success, and a foreign policy victory could prove enticing.

The rising Islamist influence in the Arab world by and large has led Israel to pursue a wait-and-see strategy, but the Brotherhood’s newfound prominence has also generated opportunities that Jerusalem should not ignore.

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Topics: Egypt • Israel

soundoff (23 Responses)
  1. sam

    It is tel Aviv not Jerusalem you twitts

    July 13, 2012 at 3:39 pm | Reply
    • the Grey Wolfe

      Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, not Tel Aviv, no matter what "The Guardian" would like to think.

      July 14, 2012 at 2:47 am | Reply
    • JohnWV

      Reading about "Jerusalem" doing all sorts of malevolent Jewish stuff is sad.

      July 14, 2012 at 5:39 am | Reply
  2. Bebe LaRue

    Jerusalem is the capital of Israel.

    July 13, 2012 at 4:56 pm | Reply
  3. TrueGrissel

    It will not work, the egyptains either kill or overthrow their presidents that want peace with Israel.

    July 13, 2012 at 5:49 pm | Reply
  4. batyacasper

    This sounds like a beautiful idea, rosy, and propelled by wishful thinking. Even if Morse agrees to your compromise because it suits him at the moment, he will never stand by it if for no other reason that he'll be pressured by his Muslim brotherhood. When Morse reneges on the deal, Israel will have armed enemy forces hammering on its southern doorstep. Is the author suggesting that we repeat history yet again? The Muslim Brothers are not invested in solving the Israel Arab conflict, they are overtly invested in ridding the area of Israel.. Batya Casper, http://www.Israelathebook.com

    July 13, 2012 at 6:18 pm | Reply
    • Joe Black

      couldn't have said it any better.....this my sound nice in theory or fool people that haven't been following history of the region since WW2. Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Islamist extremists DON'T WANT PEACE they only want piece by piece. Israel returned Sinai on the condition that it's stay de-militarized. One only has to look at border with Gaza, Lebanon to understand why. If Morsi wants to reneg on it's treaty commitments then Israel should have every legal right to go in and clean up Sinai themselves. Either by creating a extended buffer on it's border with Egypt and definitely by re-taking the Philadelpha corridor to Gaza. This would solve 99% of the arms smuggling problems.

      July 14, 2012 at 9:00 pm | Reply
  5. the Grey Wolfe

    I don't know that increasing the Egyptian police presence in Sinai will make any difference. Egypt's police are as corrupt as they come, and it's unlikely that they'll risk life and limb against the bedouins to stop smuggling to and from Israel and Gaza. Smuggling has been a way of life for the bedouin for several thousand years, there's not going to be any immediate change in the habits of millennia over a few years. The bedouin won't pay all that much attention to Egyptian soldiers, either, so there's really no point in Egypt making noise over this.

    The one really affected is Israel, and Israel will either have to demand from Egypt or from the UN that something be done.

    July 14, 2012 at 2:59 am | Reply
  6. Lee

    Time to destroy Egypt – Israel terrorist act treaty . It was not peace treaty .

    July 14, 2012 at 5:35 am | Reply
    • Johnathan

      and why not genius?

      July 15, 2012 at 9:52 am | Reply
  7. JohnWV

    Israel has made itself into a militant supremacist theocracy/ethnocracy with ICBM nukes; a very real and rapidly increasing threat to itself and to the whole world. A pariah among nations. Justice demands that UN and NATO impose resolution just as involuntary, disruptive and humiliating to Israel as Israel has wreaked upon occupied Palestine for generations. The Jewish State must be made to recognize an armed Palestine with externally enforced autonomy, eviction of all settlers, true contiguity encompassing Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem together, neither pinched nor parceled, and pay punitive reparations.

    July 14, 2012 at 5:43 am | Reply
  8. j. von hettlingen

    The Sinai Peninsula has always been a restive region already under Hosni Mubarak. The Bedouins there have always felt neglected by Cario. They complained about High unemployment and grievances, due to discrimination. As smuggling and other illegal activities activities took off, Mubarak deployed soldiers to have the region under control. In vain! The Bedouins wanted to break away from Cairo and have their autonomy, to Israel's dismay too. Perhaps Morsi might be able to reach out to these people in the Sinai Peninsula.

    July 14, 2012 at 12:43 pm | Reply
  9. jay aaronsmith

    Israeli negotiators will have to study and consider the perfidy of Morsy, determine the liklihood of his sincerity in the agreement. If they think he may be telling the truth...then I say go along, albeit with a lot of caution and care. Now, I would ask the Egyptians to allow some U.N. observers in the mix; even though they've been useless in the past, it only takes one or two who are even handed, or...pro-Israel to give Israel intelligence that may make all the difference. So I am not opposed to this, but only if Israel feels it can defend itself in the event of Egyptian b.s., and with the additiion of some UN observers.

    July 14, 2012 at 12:51 pm | Reply
  10. MCGH1

    Um, Morsi.

    July 14, 2012 at 10:49 pm | Reply
  11. lex

    Its time for the Moslem fundamentalist president of Egypt to show leadership for his own country and world peace. There is dignity in peace. He should be at peace with israel and concentrate on the Egyptian economy. He should not be looking for ways to divert attention from what he really needs to do for his country.

    July 15, 2012 at 12:24 pm | Reply
  12. iron

    America already supplied Hugh numbers of modern Weapons to both sides and Trillion Dollars, that could last them longer. That's why Egypt is in the glance. Egypt doesn't have any natural resources. It's a desert. Its power is not better than Somalia. She keep stealing the Nile water from Ethiopia and Uganda. Why America is not helping Ethiopia and Uganda, by denying the Nile? Cse, America is foolish and keep supporting its own existence and future enemy, Egypt.

    July 15, 2012 at 9:16 pm | Reply
  13. 100% ETHIO

    The Muslim brotherhood, Morsi refused to shack hand with Secretary Clinton. According to Al-jazera.

    July 17, 2012 at 1:13 am | Reply
    • Patrick

      100% ETHIO/JAL/Saeed

      I checked with multiple media sources and your statement is a lie.

      July 17, 2012 at 11:52 am | Reply
  14. bob

    I Have a pretty good vocabulary and I am also not uneducated (though I understand most people are not educated and or do not read the news) and I literally had to look the word up "interlocutor". It is my opinion that you should tone it done on the "fancy" wording from the thesaurus so that the few people that actually read the news can understand the message you are trying to convey. Just a tip.

    July 18, 2012 at 3:59 am | Reply
    • Patrick

      or, maybe, thanks to the fact that you are reading the news, and you are being challenged with new wordage, you are being educated. Not everyone would bother to define an unknown term. Not all education comes from schools.

      July 18, 2012 at 10:11 am | Reply
    • Anna

      People read the news every day to learn new things.
      This is one of them.

      July 26, 2012 at 4:46 am | Reply

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