Israel concerned over US intention to withdraw troops from Sinai

Israel would rather have the United States keeping its 400 soldiers in the Sinai Peninsula, especially on the backdrop of growing tensions there and increased jihadist activity.

al-monitor An Israeli soldier stands next to concrete barriers near Israel's border fence with Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, in Israel's Negev Desert, Feb. 10, 2016.  Photo by REUTERS/Amir Cohen.

May 8, 2020

Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz reacted May 8 to reports about the United States considering to withdraw its troops from the Sinai Peninsula, saying, "The international force in Sinai is important, and the American participation in it is important. Certainly, the issue will be raised between us and the Americans." Steinitz was referring specifically to a May 7 statement by Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, who told The Wall Street Journal that the American military efforts in Sinai aren't the best use of department resources or worth the risk to the 400 American troops there. 

The Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) was born after the 1978 signing of the peace accords between Israel and Egypt, with a mission to supervise the implementation of the security provisions of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty. From the very start and over the years, the force enjoyed good cooperation with both Israel and with Egypt.

In fact, from Israel’s point of view, the MFO had established a much better image than that of other regional multinational forces such as UNDOF in Syria or UNIFIL in Lebanon. Contrary to UNIFIL, almost no frictions or conflicts were registered over the years between Israel and the multinational force in Sinai. Jerusalem views the MFO as an example of a successful and creative peacekeeping force. A former US State Department official told Al-Monitor that the American team that established the force maintained constructive and strong ties with their Israeli counterparts.

These constructive ties evolved over time, with Israel recognizing the efficiency of the force especially in the past six years, since the change of regime in Egypt. The strong security cooperation between Cairo and Jerusalem on combatting jihadis in Sinai and in calming tensions in the Gaza Strip, were projected also on the multinational force. Thirteen countries contribute soldiers to this force, but the Americans were always key players, a fact that surely contributed to the good trilateral military relations.

Jerusalem knows that the issue of withdrawing US MFO troops from Sinai has been on Washington’s table for quite a while now. Already in March this year, the Pentagon informed Congress it was exploring this possibility. Reports at the time in the Israeli press stressed fears that such a withdrawal would weaken the already fragile security situation in Sinai, while encouraging other countries participating in the MFO to also withdraw their troops. Recent attacks against the Egyptian army are only increasing fears, in both Jerusalem and Cairo, over the Americans pulling out of the region.

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