Since 1981, a critical international military force has safeguarded the peace between Egypt and Israel. The administration’s recent budget calls for $30 million in funding for the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO), but Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley have both informed lawmakers that the United States may soon prepare to withdraw its military forces from this mission. Although relations between Israel and Egypt have improved over the decades, an American military commitment to the MFO is vitally important to regional stability.
Under the guidance of President Jimmy Carter in 1978, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat signed the Camp David Accords, which called for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Sinai Peninsula and an international peacekeeping mission. After the United Nations Security Council failed to oversee the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, the United States became instrumental in creating and maintaining the MFO.
The MFO draws most of its budget in relatively equal proportion from the United States, Israel, and Egypt. Last year, the United States provided $31 million to the MFO.
However, equally, if not more, important to the MFO’s success has been American military participation in the force. The United States’ 454 personnel are the largest contribution from any nation to the MFO’s 1,156 total force, so its withdrawal could hamper the force’s mission. These U.S. soldiers serve alongside counterparts from Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Italy, Colombia, Czech Republic, Fiji, Norway, and Uruguay. An American withdrawal from the MFO could trigger these other nations also to pull out.
In addition to serving in key leadership positions, the American contingent to the MFO patrols the southern portion of the demilitarized Zone C in the Sinai. Only the MFO, Egyptian police, and a limited number of Egyptian border guards in the north can patrol Zone C, which is next to the narrow Zone D, where Israel can maintain up to four infantry battalions.
As former chief of the National Guard Bureau, I had the honor of visiting the Army National Guard and Active Component soldiers that form the U.S. contribution to the MFO on numerous occasions. More than 12,000 National Guardsmen have now served with distinction in the MFO since the National Guard took over primary role for the U.S. contingent in 2002. I can attest both to the importance of their mission and the leading role that these soldiers play in advancing U.S. interests in the Middle East.
After having fought major wars in 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973, the peace and growing relations between Israel and Egypt is a testament to the success of the MFO. The MFO also provides a measure of stability beyond the Israeli-Egyptian border, most significantly to Jordan.
With belligerency between Egypt and Israel long over, they have been able to capitalize on recent energy discoveries in the eastern Mediterranean to strengthen their diplomatic ties and economies further. This includes Israel agreeing to export gas to Egypt last year while both countries explore an eastern Mediterranean pipeline that could ship gas to Europe through Cyprus and Greece.
Both Israel and Egypt are currently happy to continue the peace and pursue this promising offshore energy relationship. Yet, the Muslim Brotherhood’s brief rise to power in Egypt is a reminder that Israel may not always have a partner in peace in Cairo. The regime under the leadership of Mohammad Morsi from 2012-2013 was both hostile to Israel and supportive of the Hamas terrorist leadership in Gaza. Morsi’s brief time in power signaled the potential for a dark future of Israeli-Egyptian relations in the hands of bad leadership.
Without the MFO to intervene, there would be a significant concern that Egypt could conduct a training exercise or respond to a terrorist threat in the demilitarized zone and keep its forces there afterward. This would force Israel to divert resources and attention away from its significant threats along its northern border and Gaza towards its long peaceful border with Egypt. The MFO’s precise purpose has been to avoid this military buildup along the Israeli-Egyptian border that can lead to intentional or inadvertent conflict.
This is not the first time that an administration has tried to reduce America’s commitment to the MFO. Previous administrations have decreased the number of soldiers it commits to the MFO and even considered withdrawing from the force entirely. Before, the redeployments were to direct more forces towards combating terrorism. Now, the desire is to reposition towards “great power competition” with Russia and China. Shifting the several hundred troops and a few million dollars is not sufficient to deal with near-peer competitors and undervalues the outsized importance the limited number of American soldiers and dollars has on maintaining peace in the Sinai.
As policymakers look to downsize America’s military footprint abroad, they should be careful not to disturb where a U.S. presence has been highly effective. Taken alongside the withdrawals from Syria and potentially Afghanistan and Iraq, a withdrawal from the MFO would further signal that America has little commitment to Middle East stability. The U.S. commitment to the MFO is a low-cost and low-risk means of maintaining an American presence in the region and ensuring lasting peace between Israelis and Egyptians.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum is former deputy commander of U.S. Northern Command and a participant of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America’s (JINSA) 2015 Generals & Admirals Program.
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