Israel 'Very Worried' About Egyptian Military Buildup

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:14 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Israel is very worried that a massive Egyptian military buildup is eroding Israel's qualitative military edge that has enabled it to defend itself and survive in a hostile region, the chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee said this week.

At the same time, Egypt is trying to weaken Israel through the "peace process" and through its tacit support of terrorism.

Egypt, the first Arab country to sign a full-fledged peace deal with Israel, has been the main regional broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Washington has relied heavily on Cairo's influence, particularly with the Palestinians.

But Dr. Yuval Shteinitz, chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said there are signs that Egypt has a policy other than peace toward Israel.

Shteinitz, a former university professor and activist in Israel's largest peace movement, "Peace Now," was a staunch supporter of the Oslo Accords and during the 1980s, he pressed the government to open a dialogue with the PLO.

But he became concerned about the intention of the accords when he saw that various provisions were not being fulfilled by the Palestinians. He also worried about Egypt's response to Israel.

"In the 80s, when I was a Peace Now activist, we heard from Egypt that the peace is so cold because Egypt is the only country in the region who made peace with Israel," Shteinitz said.

Since the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace treaty, which came a year after the Camp David accords brokered by then-U.S. President Jimmy Carter, there have been very few Egyptian tourists to Israel - because of Egyptian policy and red tape - but many Israelis have traveled to Egypt.

Business contacts are not as strong as they could be.

"Several years ago, we already had a peace process with the Palestinians. We had a peace agreement with Jordan. We had already Morocco...and some other moderate states and the peace with Egypt is much colder than before," Shteinitz said.

Two years ago, Egypt recalled its ambassador from Israel after the Israeli Air Force attacked PA installations in the Gaza Strip. The attack followed a Palestinian bomb attack on a bus carrying children, parents and teachers to school.

"It is clear in my opinion that...the real Egyptian to let Israelis and Palestinians bleed together," Shteinitz told reporters and diplomats in Jerusalem this week.

This became clear at the second Camp David summit in the summer of 2000, when then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak proposed a far-reaching compromise to Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat offering to divide Jerusalem, including the Old City, between Israelis and Palestinians, Shteinitz said.

"This was a strategical surprise presented by Ehud Barak ... because he was quite confident that if Arafat will hear that he's getting part of Jerusalem... this will tempt him enough that he will sign a final peace agreement, [and an] end to the conflict with Israel," Shteinitz said.

Within hours of the proposed compromise, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak appeared on Egyptian television saying that Arafat could not sign a deal regarding Jerusalem since the Old City belongs to all Muslims and all Arabs. Doing so would be treason to the Arab people, and Arafat knows the fate of traitor, he said.

"Only then, Madeleine Albright, the Secretary of State, said the Egyptian contribution was negative and only then some American experts began to understand that maybe Egypt's real policy is [more] sophisticated than appeared so far," Shteinitz said at a briefing at the Institute for Contemporary Affairs in Jerusalem.

"Today I think we cannot ignore anymore also the very sophisticated relations between Egypt and not just the Palestinian Authority but also Palestinian terrorist organizations and mainly the Hamas," he said.

Hamas, on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations, receives most of its weapons and explosives through tunnels that cross under the internationally recognized Israeli-Egyptian border from the Sinai desert to Rafah in Gaza.

"If ...the Egyptians are not doing everything in their capacity to stop, to prevent smuggling of arms and explosives into Gaza into the hands of terrorist organizations in Gaza, this is a kind of implicit, tacit support," Shteinitz charged.

Jordan is much more serious and successful in stopping weapons-smuggling across its Israeli-patrolled border in the Jordan Valley, he added.

Egypt could set up roadblocks on the two roads going from the Suez Canal across some 120 miles of complete Sinai desert to the border with Israel to prevent weapons' smuggling, he said.

"I'm not saying that the Egyptians are giving weapons and arms to the smugglers, and sometimes they even arrest when there is very strong pressure coming from the United States. But they are turning [a] blind eye," he said.

Nevertheless, it is not just this logistical support, it is also what Shteinitz called "political" support.

Earlier this year, the Egyptians sponsored and mediated talks between Hamas and other terrorist groups and the PA in an attempt to broker a hudna - temporary truce - between the PA and terrorist groups.

In return for a halt to violent attacks against Israelis, the terrorist organizations, with Hamas at the forefront, received assurances from the PA that their infrastructure would not be dismantled - a key Israeli and U.S. demand for resuming political negotiations.

"This is a kind of political support for them [Hamas] not against us, but against the Palestinian Authority," he said.

According to Shteinitz, Arafat was also warned over the years not to crack down on Hamas because it would create a civil war with brothers fighting brothers.

The advice was the opposite of what the Egyptian government itself did in cracking down harshly on the radical Islamic Muslim Brotherhood - which eventually yielded to pressure, becoming a political movement.

Military might

The other troubling factor for Israel is the Egyptian military build-up.

"Unlike Israel, Egypt has no existential threat and [not] even [a] military threat on its borders," Shteinitz said.

Sudan and Libya have small armies and only aging, Soviet-era, tanks, planes and equipment. Israel, which has substantial firepower, returned the Sinai desert to Egypt as part of the peace agreement between the two sides.

"In the last decade we see a very sharp rise in military expenditures of this poor country," Shteinitz said.

Egypt has spent billions of dollars to modernize its army and air force during the last two decades. U.S. military aid - some $30 billion since 1979 - was awarded to Egypt as a prize for signing a peace agreement with Israel.

"They have approximately the same number of modern airplanes, most of them coming from the United States, F-16, exactly like the Israeli air force; approximately the same number of tanks, [many] more soldiers, [many] more units, much more artillery, ground-to-air air defense, [many] more vessels, missiles, boats, modern brigades, submarines than Israel," said Shteinitz. "So the balance between Israel and Egypt is very problematic"

Israel's defense doctrine, established by its first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, is based on the realization that Israel will always be quantitatively inferior in the Arab world and therefore it must maintain a substantial qualitative edge, Shteinitz said.

Population-wise, Israel, with approximately 6,000,000 citizens, is outnumbered more than 50 to one by the surrounding Arab world. Geographically, the Arab states have about 3,000 times more territory than Israel.

Since 1996, three years after Oslo, Egyptian military exercises have simulated war against Israel and new officers are indoctrinated to be ready for the possibility of a future war with Israel, Shteinitz said.

But according Shteinitz, Israel is "very worried" about the erosion of Israel's qualitative edge versus the Egyptians and the Saudis.

"Until now, there was a tacit understanding between Israel and the United States for more than a decade... that the United States is supplying the same... combat platforms to both sides [Israel and Egypt]," he said.

Israel preserved its qualitative edge not by tanks or airplanes or ships - because both sides had the same access - "but in weapons' systems aboard those platforms - missiles, electronic warfare, computers...

"Today we are extremely worried because there is more pressure from those Arab countries to get more sophisticated and advanced air-to-air missiles, guided ammunitions, guided bombs," Shteintiz said.

"If the United States or other Western countries will supply those countries with such kind of weapons, this will erode our technological edge even further," he added.

Adding to Israel's woes are military budget cuts, which, Shteinitz said, could prevent Israel from purchasing the best or even the most advanced products produced by its own military industry.