Almost a third of a century ago, on 26th March 1979, Israel and Egypt signed the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty. The main provisions of the Treaty were that Israel would withdraw from the entire Sinai Desert and hand it over to Egypt, and that Egypt would keep the Sinai desert almost demilitarized. T
he Treaty divided the Sinai Desert into three zones:
In the western zone (closest to Egypt, bordering the Suez Canal), Egypt was limited to an “armed force of one mechanized infantry division and its military installations, and field fortifications”;
In the central zone, they were limited to “border units of four battalions equipped with light weapons and wheeled vehicles [to] provide security and supplement the civil police in maintaining order... The main elements in the four Border Battalions will consist of up to a total of four thousand personnel”;
In the eastern zone (bordering Israel), “only United Nations forces and Egyptian civil police will be stationed”.
Israel’s security was guaranteed by the 240 km (150 miles) distance that the Egyptian Army was to be kept from the Israeli border.
Last Friday, as a response to the threat of Islamist terror cells throughout the Sinai Desert, Defence Minister Ehud Barak proposed that Egypt begin to remilitarize the Sinai Desert.
The Economist (http://www.economist.com/node/21526921) reported that Barak and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will agree to Egypt “deploying thousands of troops in Sinai… [with] helicopters and armoured vehicles”.
Barak acknowledged the inherent dangers in returning Egyptian troops to the Israeli border, but argued that “sometimes you have to subordinate strategic considerations to tactical needs”.
Israel officially denied relaxing the restrictions on Egyptian remilitarisation of the Sinai Desert. However, these official denials are hardly reassuring.
Some seven months ago, on 31st January this year, Israel allowed Egypt to move two battalions (about 800 troops) into Sharm-el-Sheikh, ostensibly to prevent arms smuggling to Gaza. However, since Sharm-el-Sheikh is at the very southernmost tip of the Sinai Peninsula – about as far off the track to Gaza as it is possible to get – that explanation sounded somewhat unconvincing.
With hindsight, it is far more plausible that the then-president Hosni Mubarak was simply preparing this remote and easily defensible area as a refuge from the unrest which had started a few days previously, and wanted 800 soldiers there as his personal bodyguard. Though Mubarak fled Cairo for Sharm-el-Sheikh on 11th February, in the event, this did not help him as he was arrested there on 24th May.
It is entirely conceivable that Israel agreed to these two Egyptian battalions to re-occupy Sharm-el-Sheikh in order to protect Hosni Mubarak personally, and by extension the regime which he led. But though the revolution has successfully removed him from office, those units have remained there.
Similarly with all further troop deployments in the Sinai: any militarization allowed by Israel will be permanent, and any Egyptian units stationed in the eastern Sinai Desert, on or close to the Israeli border, will remain there as a constant potential military threat to Israel.
Four and a half years ago, on 13th November 2006, addressing the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America in Los Angeles, Binyamin Netanyahu (at the time leader of the Opposition) sounded a stark warning about Iran: “It’s 1938, and Iran is Germany, and it is arming itself with atomic weapons”.
With all due respect to Netanyahu, the reality is somewhat different: it’s 1936, and Egypt is Germany, and the Sinai Desert is the Rhineland which is being remilitarised.
According to the Treaty of Versailles of 1919, Germany was forbidden to maintain or to establish any military facilities west of the River Rhine, or within 50 km (30 miles) to the east; this demilitarised zone was designed to protect France and Belgium, which Germany had attacked during the First World War. So long as that strip of land remained demilitarised, western Europe was safe from German military aggression.
At 10:00 in the morning of 7th March 1936, Konstantin von Neurath, the German Foreign Minister, proposed to the British, French, Belgian, and Italian Ambassadors a 25-year pact, a demilitarisation on both sides of the Rhine frontier, a pact limiting air forces, and non-aggression pacts to be negotiated with eastern and western neighbours.
In one bold action, Nazi Germany effectively annulled the single greatest guarantee of peace installed by both the Treaty of Versailles and the Treaty of Locarno of 1925.
The Allies could not possibly have known it at the time, but Hitler and von Blomberg had given secret, but very strict, orders to the officers of the Wehrmacht: if there was any sign of Allied (British or French) reaction, then they were to turn round and return to their previous positions instantly. In 1936, Hitler did not yet dare risk war against two of Europe’s mightiest armies.
It is chilling to understand the implications: a few French jeeps could have forced the Wehrmacht to retreat – and that loss of face for the Nazi regime might have caused it to collapse. Almost six years later, on 27th January 1942, Hitler conceded this: “A retreat on our part would have spelled collapse” (Hitler’s Secret Conversations, 1941-1944, New York 1953). And 36 years later, in 1969, Albert Speer (the chief architect of the Third Reich, and later Hitler’s Minister of Armaments) wrote that when Hitler “was waging a war against almost the entire world, he always termed the remilitarisation of the Rhineland the most daring of all his undertakings” (Inside the Third Reich, chapter 6).
Put simply, it is conceivable that a dozen French jeeps and fifty French soldiers, had they but challenged Hitler’s troops on that spring afternoon of 1936, might have averted the Second World War with all its attendant horrors.
However, the political leadership in Britain and France refused to confront the Wehrmacht. Neither Britain nor France had any leading politicians who had the courage to be controversial enough to confront Nazi Germany. Winston Churchill, in The Second World War (Volume 1, Chapter 11), cites Lord Lothian’s words as a representative British view: “After all, they are only going into their own back garden”.
A few months later, in September 1936, David Lloyd George, the former Prime Minister who had led Britain to victory against Germany in the First World War, visited Berchtesgaden and came away with a signed photograph of the Nazi dictator, whom he called “the greatest living German”. In an article he wrote for the Daily Express of 17th September, Lloyd George wrote that “Hitler is the George Washington of Germany, the man who made his country independent of all of its oppressors”. He continued, “What Hitler said in Nuremberg is true. The Germans would resist to the last man any attempt to invade their country. But they have no desire to march into any other country”.
It was far easier to attempt to appease the dictator, in the desperate hope that appeasement would preserve peace.
Egypt has already begun to remilitarise the Sinai Desert, and Israel has either quietly ignored this or actively acceded. As a post-Mubarak Egypt becomes progressively less committed to the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, this Egyptian remilitarisation of the Sinai will inevitably become ever more extensive. And if Egypt falls to radical Islam – a fate that is almost inevitable given the strength and mass popularity of the Moslem Brotherhood – Egyptian remilitarisation will no longer be a question of if, but only when.
And as additionally Al Qaeda and other Islamist terror organisations consolidate their military capacity in the Sinai Desert, manoeuvring there with ever-increasing independence, the dilemma which Israel will face in the next few months is already clear: which poses a greater threat to her security – unrestrained Islamist cells on Israel’s south-western border, or the Egyptian Army?
It is hard, given the current political climate in Israel, to imagine that Israel will implement the third option: Israel reoccupying the Sinai Desert and driving out both the hostile Egyptian Army and the even-more hostile Islamist terrorists. True, a very few voices – General (res.) Uzi Dayan, for example – have suggested this. But even if Egypt were to officially rescind the treaty with Israel, it hardly seems likely that any Israeli prime minister would risk all-out war by sending the IDF into the Sinai Desert.
It’s 1936, and Egypt is Germany, and the Sinai Desert is the Rhineland which is being remilitarised. And at the present time, Netanyahu is acting like David Lloyd George.