Friday, December 15, 2017

Sinai buildup shifts tenet of Egypt-Israel peace

CAIRO — Egyptian troops, light tanks, armored vehicles and attack helicopters are pouring into the Sinai desert to root out increasingly aggressive Islamic militants in the most significant easing to date of a key provision in the landmark 1979 peace treaty with Israel: the demilitarization of the peninsula.

For more than 30 years, Egyptian soldiers with heavy weapons were virtually banned from much of Sinai to create a buffer between the longtime enemies. Now, Israel has green-lighted the surge in hopes militants on its doorstep will be defeated.

But talk of formally changing the treaty remains just that, talk.

The reason may lie in the delicate realities of the new Egypt, where the fiercely anti-Israel Muslim Brotherhood has risen to political power, with one of its own as Egypt's first president since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak last year. The Islamist group has said Egypt will continue to abide by the accord. At the same time, it has repeatedly called for changes in the treaty's limits on troops in Sinai, seen as humiliating.

But its calls may be mainly rhetoric for an Egyptian public among which anti-Israel feeling is high and amending the deal is popular.

Actually renegotiating the accord would require diplomatic gymnastics for the Brotherhood to keep its vow never to meet with Israeli officials. And any deal could be spun as the Brotherhood signing a peace agreement with its nemesis, no matter how much technical deniability the group tries to maintain.

Israel is willing to bend troop limits. But it is tepid to formal amendments for fear of enshrining too much firepower on its border, especially when Egypt's post-Mubarak future remains unclear.

"No one is talking about changing the treaty," said Israeli lawmaker and former defense minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer.

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