In May 1967, the withdrawal of peacekeepers from the Sinai Peninsula set in motion a series of events that led to war. But those who think such a move in May 2020 would have similar consequences, or really any at all, are living in the past.
Yet as far as some observers are concerned, a Trump-administration proposal to withdraw American troops from the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) who are part of the peacekeeping troops that monitor the border between Israel and Egypt in the Sinai Peninsula is a shocking move that could undermine the peace treaty they are tasked with enforcing.
For decades, such a move would have been unthinkable.
The Sinai was the staging ground for Egypt’s invasion of Israel in 1948 and the scene of battle between the two nations in 1956, 1967 and 1973.
In 1967, in what appeared to be the prelude to another Egyptian attempt to destroy the Jewish state, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s demand that the United Nations withdraw peacekeepers that had been put in place after Israel withdrew from the peninsula after the 1956 Sinai campaign. The world body timidly complied, convincing Israel that it had no choice but to strike first lest it be fighting for its survival on its own territory.
The 1979 treaty signed by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin sought to end that cycle of war, though the peace it created was fragile and cold. Begin gambled not merely on Sadat’s sincerity, but on the idea that Egyptians were tired of fighting in a war to destroy Israel that was not in their interests. After Islamists assassinated Sadat in 1981, it seemed as if it might have all been a mistake. Yet despite the hostility towards Jews that pervaded Egyptian culture, Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarak, kept the bargain, if for no other reason than to keep receiving billions in American aid that was part of the treaty.
Throughout the last 40 years, American troops have been a big part of the MFO that guaranteed the peace. The U.S. contingent is made up of several hundred soldiers in a unit that also contains forces from 13 other countries. However, the situation in the Sinai in 2020 is far different from the one that existed there in past decades when the MFO truly could be said to have kept the peace.
The current Egyptian government led by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is closely aligned with Israel. While the Egyptian people may still remain hostile to Jews, the military government that el-Sisi leads looks to the Jewish state as an ally against a mutual enemy: the Muslim Brotherhood. The Hamas terrorist movement that governs Gaza is an offshoot of the Islamist group whose leaders ran Egypt for a year following the fall of Mubarak during the Arab Spring protests of 2011. El-Sisi led the popular coup that deposed the Brotherhood’s government in 2013 and has brutally repressed the Islamists ever since.
Like other Sunni Arab nations, Egypt sees Israel as an ally since the United States abandoned its interests by agreeing to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Egyptians also not unreasonably blame Obama and America for the brief ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2012-13 since it was he who helped push out Mubarak.
Egypt also fears the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip and has cooperated with Israel in imposing a blockade on that rogue terrorist regime. In the last year, it has also stepped up the building of its own separation wall around the strip in order to stop the flow of arms and goods to and from Gaza.
At the same time, the Egyptians have fought an insurgency in the Sinai against ISIS terrorists who want to destroy el-Sisi’s government.
The Sinai peacekeepers are obsolete. The MFO is no long separating potential combatants, but is instead an innocent spectator to an Egyptian effort to eradicate terrorism while Israelis cheer them on. The U.S. troops are in greater danger of getting caught in the crossfire between el-Sisi’s forces and their antagonists than anything else. What the international community needs to do in the Sinai is to get out of the way of the Egyptians, not separate them from Israel.
Nevertheless, the idea of withdrawing U.S. troops from the Sinai has generated opposition from Congress. A bipartisan group of 12 lawmakers representing the leadership of key committees in both the House and the Senate, including staunch friends of Israel like Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) — signed a joint letter calling on the administration to maintain American support for the MFO.
But like so many arguments about Middle East policy in the last three years, the debate on this issue mainly centers on the Trump administration’s willingness to question long-standing assumptions about the region. While the Obama administration thought about pulling the U.S. out of the Sinai, in the end, it didn’t do so. If Trump follows through on this plan, he’ll be accused of undermining peace or giving a victory to ISIS. But while the MFO was essential to peace in the past, it is largely a vestigial entity that carries on, in spite of the fact that the problem it was created to solve no longer exists.
It’s possible that a day will come in the future when Egypt might once again threaten Israel. But if and when that day comes, the MFO won’t do any more to protect the Jewish state than other peacekeepers on its borders. The only guarantee of Israel’s security is the strength of the Israel Defense Forces, not the presence of foreign soldiers who are far from home and have no stake in the conflict.
Trump’s willingness to question conventional wisdom has led to his much-needed moves recognizing Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, as well as the need to hold the Palestinian Authority accountable for its support of terrorism. The MFO decision is just another, albeit small, opportunity for the United States to stop living in the past and start thinking about what it needs to do now. Critics of the president need to adopt that same kind of realism, rather than attacking him for slaughtering yet another sacred cow.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.