During his first trip to Europe, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi gave an interview to the Italian media in which he voiced a far-reaching and highly significant proposal concerning the peace process – the deployment of Egyptian military forces to monitor the implementation of the peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
It's safe to assume that every Israeli cringes on hearing the phrase "the deployment of military forces to Palestine," with all the negative connotations it evokes (the War of Independence, the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War). Are we dealing this time with "a peace assault?" Is the Egyptian initiative a serious one worthy of discussion?
The Egyptian option
In the late 1980s, Shimon Peres, in his capacity as foreign minister at the time, tried to promote the idea of the "Jordanian option" – Jordanian control of the West Bank in exchange for a comprehensive peace with the kingdom. The proposal was shelved with the outbreak of the first intifada.
The current Egyptian proposal constitutes an "Egyptian option" of sorts, under which Egypt will temporarily deploy observer forces in the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Al-Sisi explained that the Egyptian presence would not be "eternal," but coordinated instead with the prime minister of Israel and the Palestinian Authority chairman until implementation of the permanent peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians is secured.
The idea of Egyptian observers comes to replace an earlier proposal concerning the deployment of international observer forces on behalf of the UN – an option that the government of Israel is not keen on at all, and justifiably so.
The deployment of Egyptian forces in the Gaza Strip would mirror the situation that prevailed in 1967 – just like the "Jordanian option" in the West Bank. But al-Sisi's proposal talks of Egyptian forces in all of the PA territory. The question for Israel is: Is the proposal worth considering? And what is the significance of an Egyptian military presence just minutes away from Israeli cities?
Against the Muslim Brotherhood
When reviewing al-Sisi's proposal, it's worthwhile examining the policies he has promoted since coming into power. Or, in other words, where is he headed? President al-Sisi claims that he seeks to lead Egypt into the 21st century and thus solve its economic problem. The major obstacle he faces in this regard is the Islamic terror groups' cynical exploitation of the Egyptian revolution of January 25 to take control of the country.
According to senior Egyptian military officials, the Muslim Brotherhood's regime destroyed the Egyptian economy, exacerbated the hunger woes of its people, and scared off tourists. Since his rise to power following the June 2013 military coup, and the toppling of Mohamed Morsi's government, al-Sisi has sought to restore control to the army and completely eliminate the Muslim Brotherhood movement.
On this quest, he has won the support of the country's urban residents, the middle class, secular Egyptians, the major newspapers (such as Al-Ahram), and even the Al-Azhar Institute, the highest authority in Sunni Islam.
As far as al-Sisi's regime is concerned, the Muslim Brotherhood is, for all intents and purposes, a terrorist organization; and the al-Sisi government displays far less tolerance towards its activists than did Hosni Mubarak's. This approach is trickling down to Egypt's allies too. Saudi Arabia's Al Arabiya news network, for example, now calls the movement the "Muslim Brotherhood terrorist organization."
Jordan, however, didn't adopt the same attitude, and the Muslim Brotherhood movement in the country was afforded legitimacy as long as it did not pose a threat to the monarchy; but according to reports on Tuesday, Jordanian authorities have recently detained senior Muslim Brotherhood officials for undermining the interests of the kingdom.
During his year in office as commander of the army, and then as president, al-Sisi introduced new anti-terrorism legislation; and today, the Egyptian regime puts the Muslim Brotherhood on a par with al-Qaeda, Islamic State and Hamas in Gaza – they're all sides of the same coin.
Al-Sisi is waging an all-out war against the terror groups in northern Sinai, and Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis in particular. The Egyptian Army has blocked the crossings between the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula, evacuated the population of the Egyptian Rafah, and blocked the terrorists' access to fuel and water. Currently, large Egyptian military forces are engaged in conflicts with jihadists throughout the region; and anything goes in the war to eradicate the terror – targeted killings, bombings, life sentences and executions.
In his war on terror, al-Sisi has widespread support in the West (Europe and the United States) and among the moderate Sunni-axis countries (Saudi Arabia and the UAE). The Egyptian president's policy is designed to uncompromisingly cleanse Egypt of the scourge of terrorism.
Egypt's new approach towards Hamas has left the organization in dire straits in the Gaza Strip. Operation Protective Edge offered an indication of this distress when Hamas voiced its displeasure with the Egyptian mediation efforts. From Egypt's point of view, Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood and thus a symbol of the last remnant of the former regime that al-Sisi toppled in a coup.
Egypt regularly accuses Hamas of aiding the terror groups operating in northern Sinai, and smuggling weapons through terror tunnels from Gaza into Sinai. The Egyptian regime also believes that Turkey and Qatar are aiding Hamas in an effort to destabilize the Sinai. And according to the Egyptian media, Muslim Brotherhood activists in Turkey are using Facebook to promote a mass demonstration after Friday prayers this week.
In response, the military has taken unprecedented measures to deter the protests, including the deployment of troops in Cairo, near important state facilities and institutions, the use of drones and the establishment of a special operations room to manage the situation.
The Egyptian government has denied reports in Israel about the Egyptian proposal to establish a Palestinian state in Gaza and northern Sinai, with senior officials explaining that the idea originated from Morsi's former regime, which had plotted to extend Hamas' rule to the Sinai Peninsula. According to the senior officials, the Egyptians did not send out their sons to die for Hamas but for the purpose of "returning Sinai to the Egyptian people."
Egypt marches forward
Al-Sisi is promising to lead Egypt forward into the 21st century, as opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood, which wants to take it back to the Middle Ages. In recent months, al-Sisi has promoted huge projects, including the expansion of the Suez Canal and the establishment of a global logistics center for the handling and storage of grain and food commodities in Damietta; and the Egyptian media are talking about the day after the eradication of terrorism in Sinai – the yield of raw materials from the Sinai earth, and not only oil but valuable types of marble too.
Al-Sisi is on a world tour to drum up political support and raise capital. The temporary suspension imposed by the United States on the supply of arms to Egypt after the revolution was cause for grave concern among the regime. Now, Egypt has stopped relying on the economy of just one country and is trying to strengthen its ties with as many as possible – European states, Russia, India, China and, more recently, South Korea.
The significance for Israel
President al-Sisi is unlike his predecessors and requires a different approach. He is not anti-Israel like Morsi, and he doesn't hold the status quo holy like Mubarak did. He is an active president in the positive sense of the word. He's concerned, of course with Egyptian and not Israeli interests, but the interests are shared to a large extent, in terms of both security and economics.
Al-Sisi thinks big, as befits the leader of the most powerful Arab state; he's calling on the West to join the war on terror in Libya, which could become Islamic State's next base after Iraq and Syria; and he wants to help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The solution of an Egyptian observer force in the West Bank and Gaza would certainly be a nightmare for Hamas, since the Egyptians won't handle the organization's activists with kid gloves. Al-Sisi's solution appears to remove the principal obstacle to the peace process that led in the past to the failure of the Oslo process – the incessant Islamic terror.
In practice, however, the proposal is fraught with grave danger. The Egyptian Army could end up in control of the Palestinian territories all the way through to Nablus in the north – something Egypt was unable to achieve in all its wars with Israel.
Over the past year, large numbers of Egyptian forces have moved "temporarily" into Sinai to fight terrorism, in violation of the peace agreements. Al-Sisi's proposal would facilitate the "temporary" deployment of Egyptian forces in Gaza and the West Bank. As in the case of the Sinai, the war on terror will require the deployment of large numbers of soldiers, tanks and helicopters in "Palestine."
The Middle East is currently undergoing far-reaching changes. One can only hope that al-Sisi's regime will ensure and achieve its objectives. But until Egypt is stabilized and can ensure that the Muslim Brotherhood regime will not return, and until the trust between al-Sisi's new regime and Israel is well founded, the government in Jerusalem will struggle to consider the proposal, despite all its advantages.
Dr. Yaron Friedman, Ynet's commentator on the Arab world, is a graduate of the Sorbonne. He teaches Arabic and lectures about Islam at the Technion, at Beit Hagefen and at the Galilee Academic College. His book, "The Nusayri Alawis: An Introduction to the Religion, History and Identity of the Leading Minority in Syria," was published in 2010 by Brill-Leiden.