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Release peace: the magazine

Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

Peace in the Middle East: A Conversation With Maj. Gen (ret.) Denis Thompson

Written by: Jasmine Crowhurst

In conversation with Maj. Gen (ret.) Denis Thompson, this article discusses the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO), a crucial but relatively unknown peacekeeping mission in the Middle East.

A Pillar of Peace

One of the most critical peacekeeping commitments led by the U.S., the MFO, was established in 1982. Its primary objective is to supervise the security arrangements outlined in the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, ensuring that both nations adhere to the limitations on military forces and equipment within designated zones. Additionally, it monitors the freedom of navigation through the Straits of Tiran, thereby contributing to the maintenance of peace in the wider region. While the MFO has played a pivotal role in preserving Egyptian-Israeli peace for over three decades, questions about its future have arisen in Washington, prompting a closer look at its mission, achievements, and potential challenges.

Historical Context

The MFO’s roots trace back to the turbulent history of conflict between Egypt and Israel. After several wars, a peace agreement was finally brokered in 1979, thanks to the efforts of U.S. President Jimmy Carter. Initially, both parties sought a United Nations peacekeeping mission, but political obstacles hindered its establishment. Consequently, the MFO was created in 1982 as a bespoke peacekeeping mission outside the UN framework tasked with observing and verifying the adherence of both nations to the peace.

The MFO’s Strength and Significance

A force of 1,667 personnel, including 692 Americans, currently make up the MFO. Egypt and Israel strongly support maintaining this force size, viewing it as essential for regional stability. The mission, despite its limited expansion potential, serves as a conduit for confidential communication between the two nations. Egypt values the MFO as a discreet means of dialogue, while Israel sees the Sinai as a critical buffer zone in case of regional instability.

The Mission’s Core Functions

At its core, the MFO is responsible for monitoring treaty zones within the Sinai Peninsula, where Egyptian and Israeli forces are deployed. The mission conducts regular verifications of troop dispositions and equipment levels. In our interview, Thompson stated that: “To achieve this, every two weeks, the MFO operates checkpoints and observation posts in Sinai and along the international boundary, counting and verifying the disposition of the soldiers. By keeping an eye on Egyptian- Israeli movements and adjudicating disputes between the two nations, we observe that the two parties adhere to the peace accord.”

Challenges Maintaining Political Peace

The MFO in the Sinai Peninsula faces both challenges and opportunities in fulfilling its mandate in the region. Thompson highlighted the recent cross-border attacks by an Egyptian policeman in June 2023, showing the ongoing potential for security incidents that can strain relations between Egypt and Israel. The MFO will need to continue its role as a mediator and conflict-resolution facilitator to prevent such incidents from escalating and undermining peace. Secondly, the presence of an enormous rebar fence along the Egypt-Israel border is a response to multiple security challenges, including the use of drones for illicit activities such as drug trafficking. Thompson expressed that: “This is a huge challenge for the MFO, any one of those instances could turn one country against another and it’s important that they diffuse all those situations, which to date has happened successfully. Every year that goes by the confidence in MFO being valuable I think increases.

Lessons in Confidence Building

Excelling in implementing confidence-building measures, the MFO is primarily centred around verifying compliance with the peace treaty. These measures include conducting verification missions consistently, instilling trust over time. As Thompson explains, “physically counting military forces and equipment, with the presence of liaison officers from both sides, creates a tangible sense of trust and accountability”.  The MFO’s commitment to this central aspect of its mission underscores its dedication to building and maintaining trust in the region. As confidence in the MFO’s role continued to grow, it offers a unique opportunity to solidify its position as a dependable and unbiased observer, further fostering cooperation between Egypt and Israel. Additionally, the MFO’s discreet facilitation of high-level communication between the two countries highlights its sensitivity to the delicate geopolitical landscape in the area. Such diplomacy and behind-the-scenes engagement can be highly important in conflict resolution.

The Old Debate About Agency vs. Structuralism

The successful implementation of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty can serve as a model for resolving conflicts and promoting peace in other parts of the world. One of the key takeaways from this achievement is the importance of individual agency in international relations and conflict resolution. While systemic approaches and models have their place Thompson notes there is an enormous role to play for individual leaders, diplomats, and negotiators that cannot be underestimated: the personalities. He said “ I think that (…) there tends to be this way of viewing the world as a bunch of systems, with actors who are interacting in a fashion that can be modelled or explained, but it is not like that, as we know, it is a world that is populated with personalities, so in many respects it depends on the personalities”. In the case of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, it was the courage and determination of two heads of state, Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin, that initiated the peace process. Their commitment to peace overcame historical animosities and geopolitical complexities. Subsequent leaders and diplomats continued their legacy, maintaining the peace despite occasional turbulence.

The Future of the MFO in the Sinai

Growing U.S. military involvement in other locations has prompted a call to reassess the future of America’s long-standing contribution to military, including peacekeeping, missions worldwide. The MFO may be a relatively obscure peacekeeping mission, but its impact on maintaining Egyptian-Israeli peace cannot be understated. As the world grapples with conflicts and strives for peace, the MFO offers valuable insights into the role of personalities and diplomacy in fostering enduring peace agreements. While its future may be uncertain, the MFO stands as a testament to the power of international cooperation and the enduring hope for peace in a troubled world.

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