Egypt's ominous threat to suspend peace deal over Rafah offensive should be taken seriously by Israel

Israel's worst-ever security disaster happened on prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu's watch on October 7. He may now preside over one of the most grave diplomatic setbacks in its history.

The Egyptian-Israeli peace deal forged between sworn enemies in 1978 has survived decades of war, intifadas and revolution - but Egypt is now threatening to suspend it over Israel's offensive in Gaza.

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The agreement, sealed at Camp David, Maryland in September 1978, stunned the world.

Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat, whose military had invaded Israel with other Arab forces only five years earlier, made peace with hardline Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin.

The agreement has been a pillar of stability in an otherwise turbulent and volatile region ever since. The very possibility it could be undermined by the fighting in Gaza is ominous.

Reports differ over the detail behind the threat from Egypt's military dictator Abdel Fattah El-Sisi.

Some claim the Egyptians have threatened to suspend the peace treaty if Israel occupies the Philadelphi Corridor, the narrow strip of land running the length of Gaza's border with Egypt, and if Palestinians breach the border and pour into Egypt.

Other reports claim Egypt will carry out its threat if Israeli forces simply take their offensive into Rafah, the area adjoining the border.

International concern is mounting about the impending Rafah offensive. Since October 7, Israel has urged Palestinians in Gaza to move south to clear the field of battle.

As Israeli forces have pushed deeper into the Gaza Strip, civilians have been displaced time and time again. For many, Rafah is a refuge of last resort - but it is now in Israeli crosshairs.

Under the laws of war, military forces should provide humanitarian support for the innocent civilians whose land they are occupying, even if only temporarily.

There has been limited humanitarian follow-up by the Israelis, who have relied instead on international aid agencies and the UN to do the work. Those agencies reported some time ago that they were at breaking point.

White House officials have said Israel's planned Rafah operation would threaten 'disaster' and cannot go ahead as currently planned.

That does not seem to be deterring prime minister Netanyahu, who is reportedly determined to go ahead even in the teeth of opposition from some of his commanders.

There would be more diplomatic collateral damage from another key Arab nation. Over the weekend, Saudi Arabia issued a stern warning to Israel not to extend the offensive. Until October 7, Saudi Arabia and Israel were inching towards normalising relations.

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The sincerity of Egypt's threat will be questioned by sceptics. Egypt benefits from the peace agreement too. It guarantees stability on its northeastern flank and economic benefits. Cairo may only be bluffing.

But the spectacle of Gaza's unprecedented mass suffering is undermining support for the Sisi regime and risks unrest in Egypt as in other Arab nations. There is a limit to what the government in Cairo can tolerate.

The risk of the Gaza war bursting its banks and decanting thousands of Palestinians into the Sinai is also a significant one for the Egyptians.

They have sympathy for their Arab brothers and sisters but know a Palestinian refugee presence in the Sinai could threaten the stability of the country. They suspect some in the Israeli government fantasise about a mass exodus of Gazans into Egypt.

Egypt's threat should be taken seriously by Israel and Washington. The region and much of the rest of the world have had enough of this war. The Israeli offensive in Gaza is, it seems, on borrowed time.