The deployment of a small number of tanks in the demilitarized zone in northern Sinai over the past few days does not threaten Israel in any way. As early as last year Israel authorized the deployment of Egyptian armored vehicles in the region to curb smuggling via underground tunnels and to fight terror organizations operating there.
It appears that the number of Egyptian tanks, armored vehicles and choppers that have entered Sinai to combat terror does not exceed the terms of the peace treaty, which limited Egyptian military presence in the Sinai Peninsula.
Moreover, the security-related cooperation between IDF and Egyptian army representatives is being conducted in an orderly fashion, as is the dialogue between senior Israeli security establishment officials and top Egyptian intelligence officers. It is safe to say that the IDF has benefited from the heightened Egyptian military activity in northern Sinai.
The armed Salafis and jihadists who have found refuge in Bedouin villages in the El-Arish area, as well as the Sinai residents who smuggled Africans into Israel for money, were forced to either flee, go into hiding or at the very least operate with added caution.
A new order?
As a result, the number of infiltrations into Israel has decreased and the terrorist activity along the border fence has apparently diminished as well. The only concern is that the terrorists will resume their activity, particularly in central Sinai, once the Egyptian military's campaign ends.
But what really concerns Israel's policy makers is not what is happening on the ground in Sinai, but Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi's efforts to downgrade the security-related cooperation with Israel in an apparent attempt to effectively annul the peace agreement between the countries.
The entrance of tanks into northern Sinai will not change the balance of power on the Israel-Egypt border, but the fact that tanks were deployed in Area C (demilitarized zone) without coordinating the move with Israel is indicative of the new Egyptian government's policy of forcing Israel to tolerate unilateral measures. A few months ago Egypt unilaterally canceled the natural gas deal with Israel, and now it has deployed tanks in Sinai without Israel's authorization.
We have seen similar or more severe violations of the peace treaty since it was signed 33 years ago, but in each of those cases a discreet complaint from Israel to the US State Department and the UN forces in Sinai was enough to restore order. It was clear that from an economic, strategic, security and diplomatic standpoint the Egyptian government had an interest in preserving the peace deal – which secured Washington's support – this despite the fact that many senior officials in Cairo, as well as the Egyptian people themselves, were and still are hostile to Israel.
The result was a cold but stable peace between the countries. But with the rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood, this equation has changed to the point where the peace treaty is in jeopardy.
Chipping away at peace
Those who want to know what Morsi thinks of Israel are welcome to read Hamas' charter, but the Egyptian president needs Washington, which is the official guarantor of the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. Despite his purge of the upper ranks of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Morsi still cannot act freely without taking the generals' opinions into consideration.
The generals who were appointed by Morsi are also aware that the termination of the peace treaty may lead to a conflict that would completely destroy Egypt's economy. This is why Morsi, who is quickly gaining power at the expense of the military and has the support of the Egyptian people, is allowing himself to gradually erode the peace deal.
But, for now, he is going about it with caution. We can guess what the future holds. The Muslim Brotherhood movement, as we have witnessed since the beginning of the Tahrir revolution, is initially very cautious and calculated, but when it is convinced that it has the ability to seize more political and military power, it acts without hesitation and with complete disregard for its past promises. This is probably what is happening now with regards to the peace process.
Therefore, Israel must act immediately to nip this development in the bud. Restraint is not an option. Past experience has taught us that in Egypt what appears insignificant at first can become very dangerous later.
Egypt has violated the terms of security agreements with Israel on a number of occasions: In 1967 it closed the Straits of Tiran and deployed army forces in Sinai (which led to the outbreak of the Six Day War); and in 1970 it deployed surface-to-air missile batteries on the banks of the Suez Canal, a move that caused Israel great damage during the Yom Kippur War.
But we shouldn't panic either. For the time being Israel should focus on using diplomatic channels to express its determination. The US government has the ability to apply pressure on Egypt's military and economy, and it is very likely that Morsi promised the senior American officials he met with (Clinton, Panetta) that he would respect the peace agreement with Israel.
However, we must keep in mind that Israel's top priority is the campaign to prevent a nuclear Iran – not Egypt. Jerusalem must avoid taking any steps or making any statements that may lead to an escalation of violence along the southern border when the IDF may soon have to operate on the northern front.
Israel's decision-makers must use quiet but intensive diplomacy to achieve one strategic goal – restore and maintain direct dialogue and cooperation with Egypt's military and political leaders. If this is achieved, the peace treaty will be much less fragile and vulnerable.