Israel adjusts defenses as Sinai is given up

With its powerful Southern Command army encamped for the first time since 1967 almost entirely within the country's old borders, the Israeli military establishment has not only reconciled itself to giving up the Sinai Peninsula but also sees in it some distinct advantages.

The recent pullback of Israeli troops from the strategic heartland of Sinai still leaves about one-third of the peninsula in Israeli hands. The troops remaining, however, constitute little more than a screening force, which will be pulled back in two years when the last part of Sinai is returned to Egypt under the Camp David accords.

Two major air bases in eastern Sinai also will be shifted to new facilities now being built with American assistance in Israel's southern Negev area.

Following its capture in 1967, the Sinai provided Israel with a 120-mile-wide buffer between its original territory and the armies of its most powerful neighbor. Sinai's return was part of the price demanded by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat for peace.

It was only after considerable soul- searching and bitter internal argument that Israel agreed. To abandon Sinai appeared to mean abandonment of tangible security in return for a peace agreement that might last no longer than President Sadat's term of office.

Today, with the abandonment mostly completed, Israel is much more relaxed about it. This is partly due to the mutual trust that has developed between Israel and Egypt over the past two years and to the beginning of normalization of relations.

More significant, however, is the assessment military correspondents have heard from several key generals who say that Israel actually is in a better strategic and tactical position now than it was before the Sinai pullback.

With the bulk of its fighting force now concentrated within Israel proper, the Army is in a better position to meet swiftly and powerfully any threat from the east posed by Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. With the threat from Egypt receding, the eastern front had become the most menacing.

Operating on shortened internal lines, Israel's military now is even more tightly coiled and, if necessary, can be directed effectively at Egypt as well, if the peace process collapses.

"The Army itself cares little about diplomatic processes," writes an Israeli military analyst. "It works on worst-case premises and takes in its stride those scenarios politicians have nightmares about."

Despite the Israeli pullback, Sinai remains an effective buffer -- perhaps even more effective than before. The Camp David accords place strict limitations on the forces Egypt can maintain in Sinai and leaves a clear demilitarized zone adjacent to the Israeli border. In order to take offensive action against Israel, Egypt would have to move massive forces across the Suez Canal and the entire peninsula before making contact. Israel thus would have clear warning of the oncoming attack.

This is in sharp contrast with the eyeball-to-eyeball situation before the 1973 Yom Kippur war when the two armies were separated only by the width of the Suez Canal -- a situation that permitted the Egyptians effective surprise.

In addition, the sheer logistical effort involved for Egypt, if in the future it tried to move a large army across the Sinai, could significantly reduce its effectiveness as a fighting force by the time it approached the Israeli border.

Israel, presumably, would never let it reach the border. Because of its own limited size, Israel's basic military doctrine always has been to carry the battle onto the enemy's territory. If an Egyptian army ever marched toward the border, Israel doubtless would move out onto the old Sinai battlefields to meet it.

The most immediate deprivation felt by the military over Sinai is the loss of the vast training areas it had enjoyed, a luxury that Israel's own limited territory had never permitted. There now is a much larger army to train than there was before Sinai was captured. To compensate for the loss of training area, the Army has purchased new simulators and developed some of its own.

The military also has acquired and developed new early-warning and intelligence gadgetry, which has thrust the country into fields of advanced electronics hitherto closed to local industry.

Since the piecemeal pullback began nine months ago, there have been five Israeli flag-lowering and Egyptian flag-raising ceremonies as various segments of sinai were turned over without hitch and according to a strict timetable. These segments have included the strategic Mitla and Gidi passes and the lucrative Gulf of Suez oil fields developed by Israel.

Despite Israel's long stay in western Sinai and its Biblical links to the area, there is little sentimentalism expressed about relinquishing it.

"I always viewed Sinai as a battlefield and a maneuvering ground, not an area for settlement," says Reserve General Yeshayahu Gavish, who led the Southern Command forces that captured Sinai in 1967. "We were able to achieve peace by being able to give something for it. That price is Sinai."

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