Analysis from Israel

The Egyptian president’s war on terror in Sinai is a daily reminder of why Israel shouldn’t leave the West Bank

On January 31, Egypt became the first Arab country to declare Hamas’s armed wing a terrorist organization. In so doing, Egypt aligned itself with America and the European Union, both of which have long deemed Hamas a terrorist group (the EU is currently appealing a December court ruling overturning its designation). Cairo is also fully engaged in the West’s battle against the Islamic State, though it’s focusing on the group’s Sinai-based affiliate, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis. All this begs an obvious question: Why does Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi seem to be the West’s least favorite Arab leader?

Granted, he’s an autocrat who brutally suppresses dissent, but so is every other Arab leader – and the West seems prepared to overlook their repression as long as it deems them sufficiently opposed to Islamist terror. Thus Western leaders flocked to Saudi King Abdullah’s funeral last month, though Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s most repressive countries, where women are forbidden to drive and bloggers can be sentenced to 1,000 lashes. And Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is feted in every Western capital, though he’s now in the eleventh year of his four-year term and his security forces routinely arrest and intimidate journalists.

Sisi, in contrast, has long received a cold shoulder. Congress froze American aid to Egypt after he took power in2013, finally lifting this ban only two months ago; thus he’s had to rely on the Gulf States and Russia for desperately needed military and financial aid. He has yet to visit Washington, though he did meet President Barack Obama at the UN in New York in September; in contrast, the State Department recently hosted officials from the Muslim Brotherhood, Sisi’s bitterest opponent. And his European trip in November didn’t include the key European capitals of Berlin and London.

So here’s my theory: The West dislikes Sisi’s war on terror because, unlike that of other Arab countries, it threatens the logic of one of the West’s most cherished policy goals – an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank.

Hamas has abetted Sinai jihadists since long before Sisi took power; after a deadly attack in August 2012, for instance, Cairo accused three Hamas members of involvement and demanded their extradition from Gaza. But Sisi escalated the battle against Gaza-based terror dramatically. Last March, an Egyptian court banned Hamas activities in Egypt; in October, Egypt began razing hundreds of houses along the Gaza border to create a buffer zone to stem cross-border traffic in weapons and terrorists; and now, it has declared Hamas a terrorist organization.

Yet while Western countries also ostensibly oppose Hamas, Sisi’s war poses two problems for them. First, it refutes their fond fantasy that Palestinian terrorists are merely anti-Israel, and would abandon terror if Israel just “ended the occupation.” A group that’s been exporting mayhem to a neighboring Arab country for years won’t stop just because Israel cedes more territory.

More importantly, however, it refutes the very idea that further Israeli withdrawals would promote Mideast stability – because in fact, Israel’s 2005 pullout from Gaza was the direct cause of Sinai’s radicalization.

Until 2005, Israeli troops controlled the Gaza-Egypt border, limiting contact between Hamas and Sinai. But when the IDF left, that restraining influence disappeared. And the impact, as journalist Ehud Yaari noted in a 2012 study, was devastating:

As Bedouin political activist Ashraf al-Anani put it, “a fireball started rolling into the peninsula.” Illegal trade and arms smuggling volumes rose to new records, and ever-larger sectors of the northern Sinai population became linked to Gaza and fell under the political and ideological influence of Hamas and its ilk … In short, despite then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s quiet hope that Cairo would assume unofficial responsibility for Gaza affairs, the Israeli withdrawal instead allowed Hamas to export its influence into Egyptian territory.

Facilitated by the dramatic increase in the number of tunnels … the expansion of Hamas and other Palestinian activities in the Sinai was unprecedented. In fact, the arms flow was often reversed, with weapons going from Gaza to the Sinai. During the [Egyptian] revolution, for example, observers noted a huge demand for firearms in the peninsula…

Today, a significant number of Hamas military operatives are permanently stationed in the Sinai, serving as recruiters, couriers, and propagators of the Hamas platform. A solid network of the group’s contact men, safe houses, and armories covers much of the peninsula … In addition, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and other factions have been moving some of their explosives workshops—which produce homemade missiles, rockets, mortars, improvised explosive devices, and so forth—from Gaza to the Sinai in recent months.

Nor was it just arms and ideology that Gaza exported to Sinai: According to Israeli intelligence, Palestinian terrorists also trained their Sinai counterparts – and jihadists from other countries as well.

“We thought Sinai was the source of all evil for Gaza, but it turned out that things were exactly the opposite,” a senior intelligence official told Haaretz in 2013. “We thought experienced global jihad operatives from Afghanistan and Iraq would come to Sinai, and from there to Gaza, but in practice, the operatives from Gaza are the ones who taught the operatives in Sinai everything they know.”

It doesn’t take an Einstein to realize that just as Israel’s departure from Gaza allowed Hamas free rein to destabilize neighboring Sinai, Israel’s departure from the West Bank would give it free rein to destabilize neighboring Jordan. True, the West Bank is currently controlled by Abbas, not Hamas. But so was Gaza when Israel left – until Hamas staged a military coup two years later. Would anyone seriously bet against a similar coup in the West Bank once the IDF, the main force keeping Hamas in check, was gone?

Thus Sisi’s war on both the Sinai jihadists and Hamas is a constant and none-too-subtle reminder that far from being stabilizing, an Israeli pullout from the West Bank would be deeply destabilizing. Yet after years of declaring such a pullout to be a top foreign policy priority, Western leaders don’t want to face this unpleasant truth. So instead, they’ve taken the easier route: simply shunning the man whose policies keep bringing it to mind.

Originally published in The Jerusalem Post on February 9, 2015

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Finally, a peace plan that takes Resolution 242 seriously

Ever since the Trump administration published its Mideast peace plan, critics have vociferously claimed that it “violates U.N. resolutions” and “challenges many of the internationally agreed parameters” guiding peacemaking since 1967. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, this is the first plan that actually relates seriously to the document every plan cites as the basis for those parameters: U.N. Security Council Resolution 242.

The resolution was adopted in November 1967, five months after Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights, eastern Jerusalem and Sinai Peninsula in the Six-Day War. But contrary to popular belief, it was carefully crafted to let Israel keep some of this territory by demanding a withdrawal only from “territories occupied in the recent conflict,” rather than “the territories” or “all the territories.”

As America’s then U.N. ambassador, Arthur Goldberg, later said, the omitted words “were not accidental … the resolution speaks of withdrawal from occupied territories without defining the extent of withdrawal.” Lord Caradon, the British ambassador to the United Nations who drafted the resolution, explained, “It would have been wrong to demand that Israel return to its positions of June 4, 1967, because those positions were undesirable and artificial.”

The reason was that, in the resolution’s own words, a “just and lasting peace” would require “secure and recognized boundaries” for all states in the region. But the 1967 lines (aka the 1949 armistice lines) did not and could not provide secure boundaries for Israel. As Goldberg explained, the resolution called for “less than a complete withdrawal of Israeli forces” precisely because “Israel’s prior frontiers had proved to be notably insecure.” And since Israel had captured these territories in a defensive rather than offensive war, the drafters considered such territorial changes fully compatible with the resolution’s preamble “emphasizing the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war.”

But then, having successfully defeated the Arab/Soviet demand that Israel be required to cede “all the territories,” America abandoned its hard-won achievement just two years later, when it proposed the Rogers Plan. That plan called for an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines with only minor adjustments (since nobody back then envisioned a Palestinian state, the West Bank would have returned to Jordan, even though Jordan had illegally occupied it in 1948).

This formula made a mockery of Resolution 242 because it failed to provide Israel with “secure boundaries.” Yet almost every subsequent proposal retained the idea of the 1967 lines with minor adjustments, even as all of them continued paying lip service to 242.

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