The attack on the U.S. embassy in Cairo and the Egyptian government’s lame response have understandably drawn international attention. But the same isn’t true for Egypt’s other provocative moves of the last month. And given that American and European officials have been claiming for years that Mideast peace is one of their top foreign policy priorities, their deafening silence over these moves is incomprehensible.
During this month, Egypt first violated the cardinal principle of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty by remilitarizing the Sinai, and then announced plans to spend a significant chunk of the international aid it is seeking on state-of-the-art submarines rather than its shattered economy. Both the treaty violation and the purchase of weaponry that has no conceivable use except against Israel clearly make the prospect of another Israeli-Egyptian war more likely, which ought to be reason enough to object: Of all the times Israel has tried ceding land for peace, the deal with Egypt is the only case in which it actually worked, so if the peace with Egypt goes, even doves like Israeli cabinet minister Dan Meridor have warned that Israelis will never sign another land-for-peace deal.
But as political scientist Amiel Ungar pointed out last week, the remilitarization of Sinai may be enough to quash any future peace deal even if it doesn’t lead to war — because demilitarization has always been a crucial element of other proposed peace deals as well. So if it turns out that demilitarization can be reversed whenever the other party pleases without the world doing anything to stop it, Israelis will think long and hard about entrusting their security to any demilitarization agreement in the future.
Ungar focused specifically on the Palestinian track, given that every serious proposal for an Israeli-Palestinian deal has called for a demilitarized Palestinian state. But what he says is equally true for the Syrian track, since demilitarizing the Golan Heights has been a cardinal element of every Israeli-Syrian deal ever proposed.
Indeed, demilitarization would in some ways be even more crucial on the Palestinian and Syrian fronts than it was with Egypt. The approximately 50 tanks Egypt moved into the border region near Israel last month aren’t a threat in themselves; they are a threat only because they show that Egypt can violate the treaty with impunity, thereby giving it a green light to move more substantial military forces into Sinai in the future. But 50 tanks on either the Golan Heights or the West Bank mountain ridge would be a threat in and of themselves. From the Golan, Syrian tanks could shell much of Israel’s north — which is exactly what they did from 1948 until Israel captured the heights in 1967. And from the West Bank mountain ridge, tanks could shell the entire Israeli heartland, which is home to most of Israel’s population, most of its commercial activity and its only international airport.
Thus if the international community actually considers Arab-Israeli peace a priority, stopping the remilitarization of Sinai is essential. And on this issue, Washington can’t afford to “lead from behind” — because so far, there’s nobody to follow.