Uncertain future for Multinational Observers

21 October 2021

The Pentagon is considering eliminating or reducing its participation in the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) in Sinai. This position was expressed recently at a congressional hearing and talks with the Israeli Defense Force (IDF).

The MFO is an international peacekeeping force overseeing the terms of the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, and is operating in and around the Sinai Peninsula.

The Canadian government has renewed Operation Calumet, the Canadian military’s contribution to the MFO. Through Op Calumet, Canadian Forces personnel provide various staff and specialty functions within the MFO based in El Gorah, Egypt.

The Canadian team is considered very important in the MFO, say Israeli leaders. Not only does the Canadian team include experts in logistics, engineering and training, its commander serves as the mission’s Chief Liaison Officer.

This potential wavering of support by the U.S. is causing severe concern in Israel, which may ask Canada to extend its participation beyond 2022.

The United States is one of 15 countries that make up the peacekeeping body to patrol the region, operating mostly as a separation of forces between Israel and Egypt. Under the terms of the treaty, Egyptian soldiers are banned from Sinai, with enforcement undertaken by police and Special Forces.

The U.S. has gradually reduced its forces in Sinai over the years. Currently, there are 454 American troops out of a total of 1,156. When the forces were first deployed, there were over 1,200 U.S. troops participating.

Annual funding for the MFO is $75 million, shared almost equally by the U.S., Israel, and Egypt, with the U.S. contributing an extra $5 million a year.

The change in the U.S policy can be explained in President Donald Trump's policy of reducing military involvement and budgets worldwide.

Israeli sources have said that a full withdrawal of U.S. participation in the multinational force in Sinai is impractical because the security annex to the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt is anchored in the existence of this force, and the force that oversees its demilitarization and dilution chief of staff, financing and holding a regiment.

The U.S. Battalion, which relies on 6- to 12-month reserve troops, belongs to the National Guard – this year from Guam, last year from Hawaii – and under the command of the Center, which is responsible for Egypt, Iraq, Syria and Iran.

According to a report prepared by the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), the situation in Egypt can change abruptly. Over the course of September 2019, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi faced his most severe public crisis since taking office in June 2014. Videos circulated widely on Facebook accused Egypt’s top military and political echelons of a slew of corruption offences, and encouraged public demonstrations against the President.

"Despite the fact that the Egyptian regime has managed, for now, to contain the protests, the fundamental economic and political problems that fueled the public anger remain in place. Thus a possible resumption of the protests, perhaps in even more violent form, cannot be ruled out. As recent events have shown, the Muslim Brotherhood is lying in wait," ‎noted the report.

Retired Israeli Air Force General Amos Yadlin, who now heads the INSS, believes the MFO is important to stability in the region. "The U.S. plan to withdraw its unit from the MFO is not good for Israel," says the former head of the IDF Military Intelligence Directorate. "This body gives stability to the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. It’s a symbolic force but, in case of a political change in Egypt this force will help a new government to explain why it refrains from going to war with Israel," adding that Israel must oppose the American plan.

With Israeli politicians in the midst of trying, for the third time in a year, to form a real functioning coalition government, they refuse to refer to the issue publicly.

The Israeli ministry of defence has not answered questions about the issue. Likewise, the spokesperson from the U.S embassy in Jerusalem said that only the Pentagon can answer questions that are related to the U.S participation in the MFO.

– Arie Egozi is a defence writer and editor based in Israel.