Military helicopter in Sinai (illustrative)
Military helicopter in Sinai (illustrative) Flash 90

Egypt's insertion of forces into Sinai to fight Islamic State (ISIS) terrorists there violates the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel and poses serious dangers to Israel, warned two experts who were interviewed in the weekend's Makor Rishon.

Operation Eagle, launched by Egypt on August 14, 2011, saw 1,000 troops as well as APCs and tanks entering Sinai to fight Al Qaeda forces there. The Islamist enemy turned from Al Qaeda to ISIS eventually, and Egypt inserted even larger forces into the peninsula, with Israel's agreement. Egypt's air strikes gradually moved closer to the border between Sinai, Gaza and Israel, and the military maneuvers have grown larger and larger.

"Under certain circumstances, a crisis and even some kind of confrontation could take place between Israel and Egypt on the sands of Sinai," predicted Dr. Ehud Elam, who used to work for the Ministry of Defense and now lives in the US. "In recent years, Israel has been allowing Egypt to transfer forces into Sinai even though this erodes the peninsula's demilitarization, which is a central component of the peace treaty. If Egypt reinforces its military presence in a meaningful way without Israel's consent, this could lead to a collision."

Lt. Col. (res.) Eli Dekel (Delitsky), formerly Head of "Branch 1" in the IDF's Military Intelligence Corps, went even further and opined that Egypt is preparing for war with Israel even now. The forces it is putting in Sinai are meant to fortify it in order to be used as a springboard for attacking Israel, said Dekel.

"I have no doubt that they will do everything they can to erode what is left of the peace treaty," he added. "The Egyptian deployment in the Sinai is not defensive but offensive. The peace treaty allows them to hold one division there, and they built an array for an army [six times larger]."

Elam described a possible war scenario in a 2014 book, "The Next War between Israel and Egypt." He said that the possibility of a confrontation is real and Israel needs to prepare for it.

War appears highly unlikely

The Makor Rishon article by Eli Eshed stated that despite the apprehensions voiced by Dekel and Elam, war with Egypt appears highly unlikely anytime soon. Relations between Israel and the regime of President Abdel Fattah a-Sisi are excellent, Egypt is busy fighting ISIS in Sinai, and may find itself fighting Libya and/or Ethiopia in the near future as well.

Elam admitted that for a-Sisi, who has myriad domestic problems, a war with Israel would be "a catastrophe." However, he said, there is a possibility that a large scale conflict between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza could create pressure on al-Sisi to cancel the peace treaty, and maybe lead to worse things.

Dekel accused Israel of turning a blind eye to the Egypt's nibbling-away at the peace treaty over the years. He noted that the terror attacks by Islamists against Egyptian forces have all taken place in the eastern part of Sinai, where the peace treaty forbids Egypt to place military forces. He raised the possibility that the attacks were initiated by Egypt, to provide a pretext for insertion of its forces into eastern Sinai.

The peace treaty with Israel was forced on Egypt, he noted. It turned Egypt "from the leader of the Arab world to a leper that no Arab country wants to be close to. Returning to the warm embrace of the Arab world by cancelling or limiting the peace treaty is both an Egyptian interest and the heart's desire of the intellectual class in Cairo. On a basic nationalist-religious plane, Israel's existence is something they do not like. They see the agreement as temporary, in force only while Israel is strong."

Experts' warnings notwithstanding, Egypt's Ambassador Hazem Khairat landed in Israel last week and will head the Egyptian Embassy in Tel Aviv, after three years in which it has been vacant.

Former president Muhammad Morsi removed the previous Egyptian ambassador in protest of Israel's November 2012 Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza. Morsi was later deposed and replaced by A-Sisi, who has much closer relations with Israel.