This Shoe No Longer Fits: Changing the US Commitment to the MFO

By Spoehr, Thomas W. | Parameters, Autumn 2000 | Go to article overview

This Shoe No Longer Fits: Changing the US Commitment to the MFO


Spoehr, Thomas W., Parameters


On 17 March 1982, under fair skies and warm weather, Lieutenant Colonel William Garrison, in command of 670 officers and men of the 1st Battalion, 505th Airborne Infantry Regiment, landed at a remote airfield in the southern part of the Sinai Peninsula. Amidst media and senior dignitaries, Colonel Garrison and his battalion arrived to take their place as the historic first echelon of a US contribution to the newly constituted Multinational Force and Observers (MFO). [1] Born in the 1979 Camp David Accord negotiations, the MFO was tasked to supervise treaty security protocols between Israel and Egypt. Little could Colonel Garrison have known that his battalion would be merely first in a line of over 39 rotations of US infantry battalions committed to the MFO mission, spanning a period of more than 17 years.

Today, the MFO is an independent, international organization principally funded from its inception in equal shares by the governments of Egypt, Israel, and the United States. Through the military contributions of the United States and ten other countries, it stands as an example of a highly successful peacekeeping organization. That success has helped to alter the Mideast environment, which is stunningly different today from the way it was in 1979. And yet the MFO has changed very little over the years--as the familiar saying goes, "If the shoe fits, wear it." In the case of the MFO, however, the current US commitment no longer fits; it should be modified based on the contemporary situation. Based on world and regional developments, changes are appropriate for the MFO which can herald a more mature Egyptian-Israeli relationship, relieve contributing nations of resource burdens, and free US forces for other, more pressing, obligations. A critical review of the MFO is particularly relevant today as the United States contemplates whether to provide peacekeepers to help secure another Arab-Israeli treaty, in this case between Syria and Israel.

Background

In the last 50 years, the desert of the Sinai Peninsula has been the scene of much conflict and subsequent peacekeeping activity. In the convulsions following the creation of the state of Israel, the United Nations authorized its first peacekeeping mission, the UN Truce Supervisory Organization (UNTSO), to supervise the peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors in 1948. Surprisingly, this mission still exists today, continuing to operate an outpost with four officers in the Sinai. [2] Following Israel's withdrawal from the Sinai after its successful 1956 invasion, the United Nations placed the UN Emergency Force (UNEFI) in the Sinai as a peacekeeping force in early 1957. Just before the 1967 war, UNEFI was withdrawn at the request of Egyptian President Nasser. [3] The removal of this force contributed to an Israeli mistrust of the UN peacekeeping system. During the 1967 Six Day War, Israel seized the entire Sinai Peninsula and occupied it until the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Following the cease-fire in 1973 and Disengagement Agreements in 1974, the UN deployed another peacekeeping mission, UNEF II, in 1974. UNEF II grew to over 7,000 military personnel. In 1976, in response to Israeli insistence, the United States also organized and deployed a small group of US civilian observers, called the Sinai Field Mission (SFM), to assist in truce observation and monitoring of sensors at the Giddi and Mitla passes. The cease-fires and agreements that UNEF I, UNEF II, and the SFM supervised were no more than military truces, however, and never reflected a lasting peace. [4]

The Treaty of Peace signed on 26 March 1979 by Prime Minister Menachem Begin, President Anwar Sadat, and witnessed by President Jimmy Carter marked a fundamental change in the Middle East geopolitical environment. It also represented a monumental risk for all concerned--Egypt for parting with the Arab bloc, and Israel for relinquishing the Sinai. The treaty was crafted to accommodate both nations' primary concerns: Egypt regained sovereignty over the Sinai, and Israel obtained a guaranteed peace. …

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