President Husni Mubarak's latest visit to Damascus was a turning point in Egypt's regional policy. The regional alliance Cairo became a part of amounts to Egypt's openly joining a military alliance actively involved in preparations for war against Israel. Even if such a war does not break, Mubarak's mere active involvement in such an alliance with Syria, Iran, and Iraq is a violation of the Peace Treaty with Israel, definitely in spirit.
Embarking on this path of confrontation and possibly war, Cairo has to legitimize this policy change by elucidating its grievances against Israel. Egypt has to justify, both internally and internationally, that its grievances warrant such drastic steps as abrogating almost two decades of peace. Cairo's most important audiences are the conservative Arab regimes that not only support Egypt financially and politically, but, once hostilities break out, will be able to intercede on Egypt's behalf with the United States and Western Europe. Therefore, Cairo's choice of the "excuse," the "justification," or the "legitimization," is most important to comprehending President Mubarak's objectives in, and expectations from, the impending crisis and war.
A most explicit presentation of Mubarak's grievances appeared as an article in the August 5, 1997, issue of Al-Wasat. The choice of a venue for this release is important. Al-Wasat is a London-based weekly owned by Prince Khaled bin Sultan, the son of Prince Sultan -- Saudi Arabia's Minister of Defense -- and the brother of Prince Bandar bin Sultan -- Saudi Arabia's influential Ambassador to Washington. Thus, al-Wasat's mere publication of Mubarak's grievances against Israel amounts to endorsement by and support from the uppermost echelons in Riyadh, particularly the most pro-US elements at the Saudi helm.
Al-Wasat reports that a legal study on the legal boundary line between Israel and Egypt was recently submitted to President Mubarak. The study was substantiated by a dossier containing legal documents backing long standing Egyptian claims to a sizeable part of the Negev -- area within Israel's 1948 borders, most of which was even allocated to the Jewish state in accordance with the November 1947 UN Resolution 181.
The area coveted by Egypt is in a shape of a narrow triangle generally running north-to-south. The northern tip is in Rafah on the Mediterranean coast. Rafah is currently the border point between Egypt, Israel, and the PA's Gaza. The western side of the triangle runs along the present Egyptian-Israeli border. This border-line is fully recognized as an international border since the turn of the Century, and its validity was reaffirmed in the Peace Treaty between Israel and Egypt. The eastern side of the triangle runs from Rafah to Awja (Nitzana in Hebrew, some 3-5 miles east of the border), and on to Birini (east of Beer Orah, in the Arava, some 18-20 miles north of Eilat). The base of the triangle is a 20-mile line from Birini, along the Israeli-Jordanian border, to Umm al-Rashrash. Umm al-Rashrash is the site of the old British post on the shores of the Gulf of Eilat (Aqaba) on the Israeli-Jordanian border. The size of the claimed area is about 1,500 square km, that is, one and a half times the area of the Golan Heights. The return of this area will deprive Israel of access to the Gulf of Eilat and on to the Red Sea. Inside this triangle are the entire city of Eilat, including the port, as well as natural resources and chemical industries in the Western Negev.
Significantly, these claims are neither new nor frivolous. On the contrary, they amount to a revival of a public discussion about the quintessence of Egypt's own perception of its manifest destiny. Herein lies the seriousness of Mubarak's renewed commitment to their realization.
Thus, these territorial claims as presented in the al-Wasat article are a repackaging of a major issue that although rarely discussed in public, actually is the quintessence of Egypt's approach to the Israeli problem. Essentially, Cairo is convinced that the mere existence of Israel, at the very least its hold over the bulk of the Negev, directly prevents Egypt from becoming the undisputed leader of the Arab World. In other words, even in its 1949 boundaries, Israel prevents Egypt from realizing its historic mission and its manifest destiny.
The roots of this concept lie in the composition of the Arab World. The Arab World is divided into two parts: The Maghrib -- the Arab West -- that is largely North Africa; and the Mashriq -- the Arab East -- that stretches from the shores of the Mediterranean to the border with Iran, and includes all of Arabia. For historical and cultural reasons, Egypt, although located in North Africa, has always considered itself the leader of the Mashriq. Egyptian rulers have launched countless of military campaigns into the territories of today's Israel, Jordan and Syria in order to consolidate that control. The underlining logic of these campaigns is that for Egypt's leadership to endure and succeed there must be uninterrupted on-land connection between the heart of Egypt and the lands of the Arab Mashriq.
Thus, since Israel was established in 1948, and consolidated its control over the Negev a year later, it has constituted a Jewish wedge separating between Egypt and the rest of the Arab Mashriq. The repeated efforts by Egypt's President Gamal Abd-al-Nasser to establish Arab unity, including a short lived formal union with Syria in the 1950s, failed. Egyptian intellectuals attributed the failure of Arab unity and Nasserism to the lack of a direct territorial continuity to the Mashriq.
By the mid 1960s, influential intellectuals, most notably Nasser's confidant Muhammad Hasnin Heikal, urged Egypt to go to war to destroy Israel in order to revive this territorial continuity with the Mashriq and thus attain Arab unity. In a milestone article in early January 1966, Heikal elucidated the logic behind and urgent need for a major confrontation with Israel in order to secure Arab unity:
"Beyond the danger of Israel's expansion, there exists the fact that it constitutes a partition between the Arab East and the Arab West, where Egypt predominates. This is a state of affairs that cannot be tolerated for a long time, irrespective of the dangers therein. In fact, in itself the partition between the Arab East and the Arab West constitutes the first step on the path to realizing [Israel's] expansionist aspirations."
Heikal warned that the primary impact of this separation is the exacerbation and aggravation of existing tension and conflicts between Arab states and power centers. Taken together, these schisms prevent the emergence of a unified Arab front for the realization of a unified Arab World, under Egypt's leadership, that is capable of withstanding the Israeli threat. Heikal pointed out that it is Israel's mere existence that constitutes such a grave threat to the Arab World, irrespective of what Jerusalem actually does.
"The outcome of the war against Israel in 1948 was distressing. Most distressing was the advance of the Israeli forces in 1948, after the signing of the cease fire agreements, to Aqaba, and their placement on the gulf overlooking the Red Sea. This was a move completed without the Arabs' paying sufficient attention to and without [generating] the appropriate Arab reaction. This move caused the complete lock-up of the gates in the partition between the Arab East and the Arab West."
Heikal stressed that there is no alternative to a perpetual armed struggle until the Arabs break through this partition between the Arab East and the Arab West. He concluded that if Israelis determined to survive, it will have to constantly fight the Arabs in order to prevent them from realizing this sacred objective -- the consolidation of all-Arab unity. This breaching of the barrier to Arab unity is the most important, even historic, task facing Egypt. "This [breaking of the partition] constitutes [the criterion for] the defense posture of Egypt, its mission and modus operandi, so that can deter any expansionist moves, break open the partition's gates, and subsequently carry out the complete and legal eradication of the aggression as presently manifested in the status-quo in occupied Palestine." In other words, Heikal argued that the breaching of the partition is not an end, but rather a precondition for the realization of the end objective -- the destruction of Israel.
This doctrinal logic ultimately led to the Six Day War in June 1967, when President Nasser led an all-Arab coalition in an effort to eradicate the State of Israel. Further more, the Egyptian and Jordanian contingency plans and operational maps captured by Israel clearly show that the initial objective of the Arab armed forces was to complete the occupation of the Negev (including the destruction of the nuclear facilities in Dimona). Only then, with Syria joining in from the north, would the Arab forces have marched together on the coastal plains and Jerusalem in order to complete the destruction of the Jewish state.
The Arab defeat in June 1967 did not diminish the aspirations for Arab unity, or altered Egypt's sacred objectives. Prevailing conditions, particularly the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the rise in US prominence in the region, convinced President Anwar Sadat that the pursuit of these objectives must be refined. Thus, in the mid 1970s, Egypt was moving toward the realization that some forms of agreement on non-belligerence, and ultimately a peace agreement, with Israel were inevitable. Nevertheless, the crucial importance of the on-land contact between the Arab East and the Arab West remained a sticking point.
Egyptian intellectuals affiliated with Sadat's Cairo continued to define the existence of a sovereign Arab artery crossing Israel as the key to enduring peace. Both Egyptian experts and intellectuals again argued that the establishment of a Palestinian State in the territories held by Israel since 1967, or even on the entire territory allocated by the UN in the 1947 Resolution 181, was not sufficient for the peaceful resolution of the Arab-Israeli dispute. Only the establishment of a secure on-land artery between the Maghrib and the Mashriq, thus permitting and facilitating the establishment of Arab unity, will resolve the conflict. "Part of the Arab World is in Asia and the other part in Africa, and Israel separates between them. This is an impossible situation, both historically and geographically, for a Nation insisting that it is a Single Nation," Heikal explained in 1975.
President Mubarak would later insist, and al-Wasat will repeat, that he raised the significance of such a Palestinian-Arab artery, as well as Egypt's own claim to the above 'triangle', with Prime Minister Begin as early as 1982. According to Mubarak, he also raised the issue of the territorial claims of both Egypt and the Palestinians several times in his subsequent discussions with several Israeli leaders. Mubarak stresses that he began having second thoughts about Israel's commitment to peace already in 1982 when Begin and other Israelis ignored his demands.
The importance of the on-land territorial continuity between the Maghrib and the Mashriq across Israel was revived as a major grand-strategic factor in the late 1980s. At that time, both Husni Mubarak and Saddam Hussein, with Saudi and Jordanian support, embarked on a quest to block the spread of Islamism inspired by Tehran from challenging and destroying the Arab state system. Until the Summer of 1990, these leaders kept contemplating various methods to revive the glory and predominance of chauvinist Arabism. Their preferable solution was a major war against Israel leading to the "liberation of al-Quds". Being able to reach Jerusalem under an Arab banner would have not only symbolized the supremacy of Arabism over Islamism, but should have ensured the existence of Arab unity by destroying the separating wedge -- Israel.
In early 1990, prominent Egyptians started talking about the imminence and inevitability of such a war with Israel. Osama al-Baaz, a confidant of President Mubarak, predicted in late-January that a war with Israel was virtually inevitable unless Israel agreed all the PLO's requirements for a compromise -- demands that included the establishment of an Arab corridor across Israel. Heikal was even more explicit: "A war between Israel and the Arabs will happen soon, there should be no doubt about it." He predicted that Israeli demands from the entire Arab Nation in the course of peace negotiations in the near future will be so outrageous that the Arab World will refuse to accept them. Specifically, Heikal stressed that Israel's insistence on bilateral negotiations with the various Arab states was only means to enhancing the splitting of the Arab World caused by Israel's mere existence. Therefore, it was inevitable that the Arab World would ultimately realize the grave danger in the Israeli machinations under the cover of diplomatic contacts. Soon afterwards a war of revenge for the restoration of Arab honor would erupt, Heikal anticipated. Other Arab commentators and government officials concurred with this analysis and predictions.
Significant progress towards the realization of this war doctrine peaked in the Arab Summit of May 1990 when specific operational steps and contingency plans were agreed upon. However, this ambitious design did not materialize because Saddam Hussein broke ranks with his partners later in the Summer. Baghdad became apprehensive about Egypt's growing prominence in, and Mubarak's quest for leadership of, the Arab World. Therefore, Saddam Hussein decided to single-handedly demonstrate Iraq's ability to dictate to the Arab World, and thus become its undisputed leader. Toward this end, Iraq invaded Kuwait -- a long-term irredentist claim of Iraq -- thus triggering the Gulf Crisis.
The launching of the US-sponsored peace process in the aftermath of the Gulf Crisis did not diminish Cairo's commitment to the on-land connection with the Arab East. On the contrary, the demise of Iraq as a viable contender for leadership and the demonstrated dependence of the Arabian Peninsula on Egyptian military aid gave Cairo extremely favorable circumstances for its quest for leadership. When the Arab World was slow to recognize Egypt's leadership, Cairo reasoned that it was the existence of the Israeli wedge that had hindered Mubarak's quest.
At first, Cairo concentrated its effort on endorsing the establishment of an artery across Israel as an integral part of the Palestinian state. Indeed, a March 1992 document called "Suggested Guidelines for Comprehensive Development", itself part of a larger "Master planning: The State of Palestine" study, highlighted the importance of an on-land artery. The document anticipates the minimal territory provided to the Palestinian State to include not only the entire territories, but also a 3.12-mile wide and 28.12-mile long corridor between Gaza and Hebron. The study demands that Israel not only surrender sovereignty over the 225 square km of the corridor, that is within the 1948 boundaries, but also remove the nine settlements it passes through.
When the Oslo Accords and subsequent Israeli-PLO agreements failed to deliver such a corridor, President Mubarak revived the study of an Egyptian initiative to unilaterally establish territorial continuity with Jordan. The urgent need to confront Israel militarily as an instrument for reviving and consolidating Arab unity was the key subject in a December 1994 summit in Alexandria, Egypt, between Husni Mubarak, Hafiz al-Assad and King Fahd. The three leaders decided on a new confrontational and hostile attitude toward Israel as the key to Arab politics. They asserted there was no alternative to containing and ultimately destroying Israel's strategic posture and superiority.
The role of Israel as a wedge preventing Arab unity was explicitly discussed throughout Cairo in the aftermath of the summit. A late December, 1994, editorial in the government-owned al-Ahram al-Masa'i warned about the long-term implications of the continued splitting of the Arab World. "Israel will continue its policy of instigating split/separation among the Arab States, and will continue to work in order to deepen the disagreements between them. ... Israel is trying to split the Arab World both politically and geographically by separating between the Maghrib and the Mashriq." A reversal of this trend is a precondition to the revival of Arab unity and might -- the key to Egypt's return to its position as the undisputed leader of the Arab World.
Since then, there has been a further refinement of the Arabs' perception of future strategies, particularly meeting the Israeli challenge. In 1996, with frustration over American and European inability to "deliver" Israel growing, the main Arab states resolved to slide toward war as their primary strategy. However, this time, the anticipated war will be an all-Islamic effort with Iran playing a major role. Indeed, Cairo openly discusses the demise of the "peace process", and stresses the crucial significance of ensuring Arab Unity -- meaning the revival of Egypt's irredentist claims and the quest for territorial continuity across Israel.
Significantly, the on-land continuity issue was revived openly on April 25, 1997, by President Mubarak. In a speech commemorating "the liberation of the Sinai" to the command echelons of the 2nd and 3rd Armies -- who crossed the Suez Canal in the Yom Kippur War -- President Mubarak stressed the task of liberating Egyptian lands is yet to be completed. He declared that "Umm al-Rashrash is an Egyptian territory which we will not abandon." He complained about the repeated Israeli ignoring of his demands for the return of the 'triangle', going back to 1982. Given Israel's adamant refusal to even consider the Egyptian claims, Egypt should reconsider the means for the liberation of its sacred land, Mubarak noted. Mubarak left no doubt that Cairo has already resolved to make the Umm al-Rashrash triangle dossier a priority open issue. Egypt will vigorously pursue all options until its eastern boundary is established along the Rafah-Umm al-Rashrash line.
Both President Mubarak and official Cairo are fully aware of the gravity of these irredentist claims. They know that Jerusalem will not unilaterally surrender the territory to Egypt. They don't expect the US, especially in view of the explicit recognition of the current Israeli-Egyptian border as a permanent international border in the Israeli-Egyptian Peace Treaty, to pressure Israel, let alone compel a withdrawal. Hence, the political and non-violent venue to recovering the Umm al-Rashrash triangle does not exist. Thus, the Israeli refusal to discuss this matter means that Egypt will have to fight for what Cairo now insists is rightfully Egypt's. The Egyptian military elite is enthusiastic about the prospects of struggling for Arab Unity and Egypt's leadership role.
And so, an emboldened and determined President Mubarak traveled to Damascus in late July, and announced Egypt's joining the regional military alliance against Israel. With Mubarak's Cairo considering the recovery of the Umm al-Rashrash triangle key to Egypt's realization of its manifest destiny, the likelihood of an Egyptian compromise -- namely a legitimization of Israel's right to exist even in its 1948 borders -- has all but evaporated. With a sacred cause worth fighting for defined and declared, Egypt's road to war is open.
Yossef Bodansky has been the Freeman Center's World Terrorism Analyst since 1994.