Going big: With Palestinian state offer, Egypt enters Middle East’s new strategic game

Going big: With Palestinian state offer, Egypt enters Middle East’s new strategic game
Like a boss. Abdul Fattah al-Sisi with military leaders in 2013. (Image: AFP via dtnews)

Caroline Glick has a piece in the Jerusalem Post today outlining a game-changing offer which Egypt’s president, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, is reported to have made during Operation Protective Edge.  Read the opener for yourself:

On August 31, PLO chief and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told an audience of Fatah members that Egypt had offered to give the PA some 1,600 kilometers of land in Sinai adjacent to Gaza, thus quintupling the size of the Gaza Strip. Egypt even offered to allow all the so-called “Palestinian refugees” to settle in the expanded Gaza Strip.

Then Abbas told his Fatah followers that he rejected the Egyptian offer.

On Monday Army Radio substantiated Abbas’s claim.

According to Army Radio, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi proposed that the Palestinians establish their state in the expanded Gaza Strip and accept limited autonomy over parts of Judea and Samaria.

In exchange for this state, the Palestinians would give up their demand that Israel shrink into the indefensible 1949 armistice lines, surrendering Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria. Sisi argued that the land Egypt is offering in Sinai would more than compensate for the territory that Abbas would concede.

It’s no surprise that Abbas rejected the proposal.  But what’s important about the proposal is that it’s an intriguing thought that can’t be un-thought now, and it drives an Egyptian strategic stake into a game of maneuver and shifting momentums in which Egypt has so far been sidelined.

Egypt couldn’t stay sidelined forever.  With the largest population in the Arab world, and some of the most strategically significant territory, Egypt was going to come into the “new game” – the post-Arab Spring game – one way or another.  Since Mohamed Morsi’s ouster in 2013, Egypt’s role has been as an anchor of the status quo.  But that has just changed.

A sticky concept

Even though Abbas didn’t buy into the proposal, it’s too interesting for others to drop.  It’s tailor-made for foreign-service pragmatists in all corners of the Oslo “Quartet,” including the U.S. State Department.  It’s the kind of thing the State Department under Hillary Clinton could quite probably have gotten behind, for example.

John Kerry may be too much in thrall to the radical-left constituency that correctly counts both him and Obama as friends: the anti-Israel ISM faction that will never allow justice to have been done unless Judea and Samaria are Judenrein (Jew-free).  But there will be foreign-service careerists at the senior level today who see the Sisi proposal as having real promise.  Key pundits in the U.S. media are guaranteed to like it, once their minds get past the break from the Oslo paradigm.

Caroline Glick points out ways in which the proposal will be attractive to Israel as well.  In the aggregate, they amount to the overarching benefit of not having to negotiate or administer a separate state in the West Bank.  Such a state would inevitably remain an existential vulnerability for Israel unless the character of the Palestinian Arab leadership changed, in ways that it probably never will – at least not if its framework for politics is the “Palestine in the West Bank” paradigm.  The attractive aspect of the Egyptian proposal is that it would change precisely that.

In doing so, it would take Jerusalem out of the equation as a proximate strategic objective.  I assume “limited autonomy over parts of Judea and Samaria” would entail “Palestinian” Arabs remaining in East Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Hebron, at the very least.  But putting a Palestinian state over in the Sinai would suggest having a capital in the Sinai-based state.

The Arabs would insist, of course, on retaining the position they have on the Temple Mount, and administering other sites they have labored to establish as belonging to an Arab Islamic heritage.

But Jerusalem and its environs would not be contiguous with broader territory, which the Palestinian Arabs, or any of their allies, could seek to use as avenues of approach for holding Jerusalem at risk, either militarily or demographically.  In the short run, al-Sisi’s proposal takes that strategic vision out of the picture.

That doesn’t mean it won’t come back, however.   It means, rather, that anyone who wants to use that approach will have to take Egypt into account.

Reset in the Sinai

For 35 years, Egypt has effectively been on the sidelines for a dynamic unfolding next door, in which outside patrons seek to back guerrilla insurgencies against Israel from Judea, Samaria, Lebanon, and Gaza.  Egypt has felt the impact of this dynamic, through security vulnerabilities in a demilitarized Sinai.  But she has not been consulted or had the position from which to affect or control the dynamic.  She has just had to deal with the fall-out in the Sinai – without exceeding the little “re-militarizations” here and there that Israel will tolerate.

Sudden Strategic Centrality Syndrome in the Sinai. (Google map)
Sudden Strategic Centrality Syndrome in the Sinai. (Google map)

Offering land for a Palestinian state in the Sinai changes everything for Egypt.  Al-Sisi will not, of course, simply hand the Sinai over to be administered by a new state.  He will retain overall responsibility for the security of the peninsula.  He’s the opposite of a fatuous fool: he knows full well that a Palestinian state in the Sinai will become a magnet for jihadis of all stripes.  It will change the security conditions in the Sinai, but they will be Egypt’s security conditions – and therefore Egypt’s to make arrangements for.

If this thing actually happens, Egypt will have to transform her military posture in the Sinai, well beyond anything Israel would be comfortable with under today’s political conditions.  Egypt will have to secure a Palestinian state against infiltration by jihadis – along extensive and hard-to-defend borders – and will have to secure the Suez Canal.  For perfectly valid reasons, the creation of a Palestinian state there fully re-militarizes the Sinai.

I don’t believe that al-Sisi has in mind preparing for an invasion of Israel down the road.  Don’t take that away from this essay.  Al-Sisi will continue to make common cause with Israel on a number of matters.  I predict he will test the limits of Israel’s tolerance – as Israel tests his – but it will be in a spirit of pragmatism and the enforcement of order.  He’ll be someone Israel can, in Margaret Thatcher’s deathless words about Mikhail Gorbachev, “do business with.”

I do believe, however, that he sees an opportunity to gain a freer hand in the Sinai, to loosen the inconvenient clamps on Egypt from the 1979 peace accord with Israel, and to gain for Egypt a stake of supreme strategic importance – a stake conferring influence and power – in the course of regional developments.

A catapult for Cairo

It’s only Westerners who think anything would be settled by establishing a Palestinian state in the Sinai.  Leaders in the region see much more clearly that Egypt’s proposal would not produce an end-state, but a resetting of the board in Egypt’s favor.

This is the kind of thing Benjamin Netanyahu was born to see, however, and it will explain caution and deliberation on his part, should the ball get rolling on this proposal in the near future.  He wouldn’t be doing his job for Israel if he failed to foresee that Abdul Fattah al-Sisi will not always be in charge of a newly empowered Egypt, with a remilitarized Sinai teeming with “Palestinians.”

Israel must be very careful what she cooperates in creating next door.  The prettier the whole situation is, the more the strategically-minded jihadi will covet it.  Let al-Sisi show internal weakness, and he will only have painted a big target on his back.

But the idea is certainly sticky.  How far it goes will depend on who in the Arab League or OIC gets onboard with it.  Supporting the idea will mean supporting Egypt’s assumption of an unmatched strategic role in the region.

But that may be just the impetus and focus the forces of orderly change need.  While radical Iran marches toward a bomb and ISIS strikes a blow for jihadi political conquest, the seekers of order in the Middle East have been rocked on their heels, unable – in the absence of leadership from the United States – to find a strategic framework to coalesce around.  Al-Sisi’s proposal would certainly fill that void.  It would give a cabal of nations something indigenously proposed to navigate toward.

It would also give Egypt a basis for vaulting into a leadership position.  The major player we haven’t heard from lately, in the feeding frenzy for political dominance in the Middle East, is Turkey.  I wouldn’t count Erdogan out, but al-Sisi has probably just changed the game on him.  If Erdogan can get past his domestic problems, he is likely, for the time being, to turn neo-Ottoman eyes more toward Syria, Iraq, and Southeastern Europe than toward Israel.  Interfering in the momentum al-Sisi’s proposal is likely to build will require a broader, unchallenged strategic “base” than Erdogan has today.

We can assume that has occurred to al-Sisi too.  We live in interesting times.

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard.


Commenting Policy

We have no tolerance for comments containing violence, racism, vulgarity, profanity, all caps, or discourteous behavior. Thank you for partnering with us to maintain a courteous and useful public environment where we can engage in reasonable discourse.

You may use HTML in your comments. Feel free to review the full list of allowed HTML here.