WASHINGTON, Dec. 17 (JTA) — The United States has convinced Israel and Egypt to accept an immediate cut in the American presence in the Sinai. According to an Israeli official, the United States will continue to lead the Multinational Force and Observers — established under the 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt — but the American presence will be significantly reduced. In January, Israel and Egypt rejected an idea proposed by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to reduce the U.S. presence to as few as 26 men. Under U.S. pressure, the two countries submitted a joint counterproposal in which the American presence will be more than “nominal,” but significantly less than the current 900 men, the Israeli official said. The plan, which has not yet been made public, received U.S. government approval Tuesday. “The fact that both sides have agreed to this means that there is not going to be a change on the ground,” one American military analyst said. “Both Egypt and Israel would have preferred the status quo, but the peace is stable and secure right now, and I don’t think either side feels that removing U.S. presence will have a dramatic effect on the ground.” The Pentagon wants to reduce American manpower around the world in order to centralize forces for potential conflicts. The actual commitment of U.S. forces to the Sinai is greater than it appears: While the 900 soldiers in the multinational force are serving a six-month stint, an additional set of 900 is being trained to take their places and another set is debriefed after returning. Even the White House rebuffed Rumsfeld’s earlier proposal, hoping to find a plan that met with Israeli and Egyptian approval. That led Egypt and Israel to formulate their joint proposal. With 1,900 troops from 11 countries, the force patrols the Israeli-Egyptian border. It was established in 1982 to monitor the security arrangements of the countries’ peace treaty. The Israeli official said Egypt and Israel entered the process of reducing the American forces reluctantly. In part it’s due to precedent: In May 1967, a U.N. peacekeeping force left the Sinai under pressure from Egyptian President Gamel Abdel Nasser. Nasser subsequently closed the strategic Straits of Tiran to Israel-bound ships and moved Egyptian troops through the Sinai toward Israel, sparking the Six-Day War. Their reluctance also was a product of misgivings about the “cold peace” that has reigned between Israel and Egypt since the beginning of the Palestinian intifada in Sept. 2000. Egypt pulled its ambassador from Tel Aviv two months later, and has not returned him. Israel accuses Egypt of whipping up anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic sentiment. The United States, Israel and Egypt each pay $15 million a year for the force.
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