Egypt’s moves in Sinai alarm Israel

Egypt’s moves in Sinai alarm Israel
By Vita Bekker in Tel Aviv

Israel expressed concern on Wednesday over Egypt bolstering of its military presence in the Sinai desert in possible violation of the 1979 peace pact.
Cairo was reported this week to be deploying troops and tanks in Sinai for the first time since the two countries fought a war in 1973.

The Egyptian move in Sinai – which the peace agreement says must remain largely demilitarised, with any changes co-ordinated between the two sides – appeared aimed at Islamist militants blamed for killing 16 Egyptian border guards in an attack this month.
While senior Israeli officials said on Wednesday that they were in direct contact with their Egyptian counterparts, they suggested that any violation of the treaty could undermine regional stability.
A government official who spoke on condition of anonymity said that Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli foreign minister, told foreign ambassadors in a closed meeting in Jerusalem late on Tuesday that the agreement “needs to be respected very strictly, otherwise we’ll find ourselves on a slippery slope”.
The official added that some of Egypt’s moves, such as sending tanks into Sinai, had not been carried out “in co-ordination” with Israel, but declined to give more details.
Bilateral ties have been strained since Hosni Mubarak was ousted as Egyptian president last year. This month, the new Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, dismissed the country’s top two military leaders, including Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, defence minister. Analysts say this sudden shake-up may adversely affect the two countries’ long-standing co-operation on security issues.
Israel has allowed the rules to be bent before, including last year when it let Egypt deploy troops and some heavy weapons in a sensitive border zone. However, this appears to be the first time that Egypt has changed its military presence without consulting the Israelis.
Zvi Mazel, a former Israeli ambassador to Egypt, said: “This is not a good omen. Nobody has tried to violate the peace treaty in the past 33 years.”
Egyptian officials could not be reached for comment. A statement on the government’s official website, however, denied some media reports that Israel had asked Egypt to withdraw its tanks and other weapons. It gave no further details.
Amos Gilad, a senior Israeli defence ministry official, told an Israeli radio station that Israel remained in “constant dialogue” with Cairo on security issues.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2012.

Aug 23, 2012

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