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Date posted: September 15, 2005
By Khalil Shikaki

Israel is changing its definition of vital interests. Withdrawal from the Gaza Strip with its 1.3 million Palestinians, regardless of the immediate motivation, fit well into Israel's desire to remain Jewish and democratic. But instead of negotiating the conditions of its withdrawal with the Palestinian Authority (PA) - thereby paying a heavy price in the West Bank - it was willing to withdraw unilaterally. In doing so, it was ready to abandon long-term demands, such as a presence along the external borders and at the Palestinian international border crossings. The new Egyptian-Israeli security arrangement along the Rafah border has made it easier for Israel to make the change. In doing so, it also served Palestinian and Egyptian interests, a true non-zero-sum bargain.

With the new security arrangements, Israel seeks to reduce its risks as it unilaterally separates from the Palestinian demographic and other "threats." The option of deploying Egyptian forces along the Egyptian side of the border with the Gaza Strip is the least costly for Israel. The alternative, inviting a third party such as an international or multilateral force, with deployment on the Palestinian side of the border, would have required negotiations with the Palestinians and would have reduced Israel's room for maneuver by restricting its freedom of movement in the Gaza Strip after withdrawal.

In contrast, since the Egyptian deployment is on Egyptian rather than Palestinian soil, Israel can still maintain its ability to enter the Gaza Strip whenever it wishes. The other alternative - asking Palestinians to provide for border security - requires a much greater level of Israeli-Palestinian trust and security cooperation than currently exists. Moreover, Palestinians lack the capacity to do the job and Israel refuses to allow them to acquire that capacity. For now, the Egyptian role serves a stopgap function until Palestinian capacity is acquired and trust restored.

For the PA, the Egyptian deployment along its southern border makes a full Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip more likely. As importantly, it provides an important precedent for its eastern borders with Jordan. Soon, Israel will face a West Bank situation similar to the one it faced in Gaza. In the absence of permanent-status negotiations - a most likely scenario - it could find it to its advantage to make similar arrangements with Jordan along the Jordanian-Palestinian borders and its border crossings, instead of inviting a third-party role. Negotiations with the PA might not be an option as Israel will not agree to withdraw completely from the West Bank and the PA will most likely refuse to negotiate provisional borders.

Moreover, a greater security role for Egypt at this time helps the PA meet its own security obligations while providing it time to rebuild its own capacity. Egypt will now have a greater stake in preserving the existing calm by working closely with all armed factions in Gaza. It will have a similar interest in helping reform and rebuild Palestinian security services so that they can assume their own border responsibilities.

For its part, Egypt gains a greater security presence in Sinai. It also gains a greater role in the Arab-Israel peace process and in domestic Palestinian politics. Egypt's success in securing the borders with the Gaza Strip improves its regional standing and its relations with Israel and the United States.

There are risks. Continued violence and settlement construction in the West Bank could create greater motivation to smuggle arms across the border. If successful in preventing the smuggling, Egypt would be seen as a state that protects Israeli interests. If it turns a blind eye or if smuggling continues despite its efforts, Egypt's relations with Israel and the U.S. would most likely deteriorate. If Egypt were made to pay for lack of enforcement, it might blame the PA for that. The PA might lose a friend as well as the opportunity to present the Egyptian deployment as a viable model to employ on its eastern borders.

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Source: The Daily Star
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