JERUSALEM (May. 21)
Israeli officials are speculating over whether the recent reduction of Egyptian forces east of the Suez Canal represents a deliberate easing of tensions on the eve of the official reopening of the waterway and President Anwar Sadat’s meeting with President. Ford; or whether it is a tactical military move preparatory to a massive crossing of the Suez Canal by Egyptian troops and armor now deployed on its west bank.
Whatever Cairo’s Intentions, the Egyptians have withdrawn a considerable portion of the 7000 troops, 36 cannons and several dozen tanks they are entitled to keep east of the Suez Canal under terms of the January, 1974 disengagement agreements with Israel.
This move, over the past few days, was contrary to the expectation in Israeli military circles that the Egyptians intended to beef up their forces in Sinai coincidental with the canal’s reopening, even to the point of violating the disengagement accords, Cairo was expected to use the pretext of protecting the waterway from attack by Israeli artillery deployed on a line west of the Mitle and Gidi Passes and within easy range of the canal. Defense Minister Shimon Peres said last week that Israel welcomed the reopening of the canal and would not interfere with shipping using it.
DAYAN SUGGESTS CONCILIATORY GESTURE
Meanwhile, former Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, to the surprise of many, has proposed that Israel make a conciliatory military “gesture” to coincide with the official reopening of the Suez Canal June 5, Dayan, generally regarded as “hawkish” in his views, said at a Labor Alignment political debate last night that Israel could thin out its line facing the Suez Canal by pulling back some of its heavy artillery, though infantry troops manning the lines would remain in place.
Such a gesture apparently has been under discussion behind the scenes in government circles for the past few weeks. Peres is known to have favored it initially but Premier Yitzhak Rabin was opposed. It is not believed therefore, that there will be any lowering of Israel’s military profile in Sinai. Peres’ assurances to the Egyptians that Israel has no intention of interfering with Suez Canal traffic is considered sufficient to allay any genuine fears the Egyptians may have.
NOT DISCOUNTING EGYPTIAN MOVE
But Israeli circles are not discounting the possibility that the Egyptians pulled back troops and armor from the east banks of the canal in order to form a powerful striking force that could re-cross the waterway without seriously interfering with maritime traffic.
Military correspondents who toured the Sinai front yesterday were able to see the heavy fortifications and military road system the Egyptians have built east of Suez which are capable of serving the five Egyptian divisions now deployed just west of the canal.
The Egyptians have also prepared the earthwork foundations for seven bridges that can be thrown across the canal within minutes to carry troops and armor into Sinai and then removed to allow ships to pass. At the same time, however, the Egyptians are continuing to rebuild their war-damaged cities in the Suez Canal zone and the civilian population is returning.