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The Quest for Arab Territorial Continuity
as a Focus of the Middle East Conflict

Ilan Asya
Policy Paper No. 21, 1998


A publication that appeared in the August 4, 1997 edition of the Saudi Al-Wasat weekly in London, stated that Egypt claims land in the Israeli Negev desert, allowing it to create sovereign territorial continuity with Jordan in the Eilat area. This claim raises the possibility that Egypt decided to reinstitute on the agenda their old demand for this type of territorial continuity.

The quest for Arabic territorial continuity – or in its alternate name, the question of the Negev Wedge in the Arab-Israeli conflict – existed first and foremost in virtue of the geopolitical potential embedded in the Negev that allows it to be designated as a dividing wedge between the Arab states in Northern Africa and those in Asia. This potential was implemented in the UN partition plan on November 29, 1947, according to which it was determined the part of the Negev designated for the Jewish state, would reach the Gulf of Eilat.

Arab resistance to Eilat’s seizure and the Israeli implementation of its right to that area in accordance with the UN partition plan, was very weak in the beginning but this completely changed with the rise of Gamal Abdel Nasser to power in Egypt. The Nasserism and mainly the Pan-Arab component of this political doctrine, saw Israeli control in the Negev and mainly in its southern area as a disaster for Egypt, since it blocks the creation of Arab sovereign territorial continuity between Egypt and Jordan, in other words between Egypt and the Arab states in Asia.

The Nasserism, with its high priest Muhammad Heikal, realized that creating a political unity between Egypt and other Arab states in Asia is vital to Egypt’s existence. Thus, in the years 1954-1956, Egypt attempted to achieve an Israeli withdrawal from the southern Negev, with the Egyptian leadership defining this as the primary condition to the peace agreement in the area.

At the end of 1954, Britain and the US initiated a coordinated joint effort to settle the Arab-Israeli conflict, which continued until the start of 1956, as part of a global effort to solve conflicts that might serve the Soviet penetration and expansion effort. The cornerstone in the secret plan was applying massive American pressure on Israel to relinquish territories in the Negev, allowing the creation of Arabic territorial continuity between Egypt and Jordan. What stopped these Anglo-American attempts to achieve a settlement in the area was the rapid shifting of Egypt in the direction of the Soviet Union and the strengthening of Nasser’s position as one of the leaders of the nonaligned bloc countries.

The Suez-Sinai War in October-November 1956, and in its wake, the Eisenhower doctrine, created a new reality in the area, based on the isolation of Egypt, that was under Soviet influence, from other Arab countries. The Negev Wedge then changed from a load on the United States to a strategic asset and a shield from Egypt, mainly for the Arab oil states. The Egyptian efforts to bypass the Israeli Wedge, which were evident mainly in the deep Egyptian involvement in the Yemen war, brought on an American-Egyptian-Soviet confrontation, a confrontation that reached its peak at the end of 1966 and the beginning of 1967.

Nasser’s announcement on the closing of the Straits for Israeli navigation that was delivered on May 22, 1967, neutralized the main and possibly the only single Israeli direct achievement in the Suez-Sinai War. This move, together with the preparation of the military option to conquer the southern Negev as Egypt’s primary military target, were interconnected. Today it is possible to evaluate that the Egyptian effort to remove the Israeli Wedge in the southern Negev was one of the main reasons for the outbreak of the Six Day War.

Even after the devastating Egyptian loss in the Six Day War, Egypt did not forget its aspiration to territorial continuity. After Nasser’s death, Muhammad Heikal continued to view this target as one of its most important goals.

The Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement supposedly ended the Egyptian demand for the southern Negev. Thus a section was included in the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement that allowed Egypt to pave a road – which remains in Israeli sovereignty – that will connect between Egypt and Jordan and will pass through the southern Negev. The fact that Egypt refused and continues to refuse till today to implement this section, expresses the true position, whereby it is still not satisfied with the present situation.

The publication in Al-Wasat and Egypt’s massive military build-up with American arms raises the possibility that, given a suitable opportunity, Egypt will implement part of its military backup plan by selecting territorial targets inside Israeli areas.

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