Israel’s historic peace treaty with Egypt, signed and sealed 30 years ago this week in Washington, D.C., has weathered a succession of storms, yet it remains a cold peace.
Egypt’s bold, trail-blazing decision to establish formal diplomatic relations with the Jewish state after three decades of mutual hostility and four wars was preceded by secret Israeli-Egyptian talks, the unprecedented visit to Israel of Egypt’s president, Anwar Sadat, in November 1977, and the signing of the Camp David accords – which created a framework for peace – in September 1978.
On March 26, 1979, Sadat and Israel’s prime minister, Menachem Begin, affixed their signatures to the treaty, which both sides needed to develop their respective economies . The master of ceremonies was the president of the United States, Jimmy Carter, who had worked tirelessly to make it happen. Sadat, keen to resolve the Palestinian question, declared he had not signed a separate peace with Israel. But this was the real meaning of Egypt’s treaty with Israel.
In short order, Israel and Egypt set up embassies in Cairo and Tel Aviv. Egypt thus became the first Arab country to recognize Israel. By 1981, the international force that was to monitor the provisions of the treaty – the Multinational Force and Observers – was up and running in the Sinai Peninsula, which Israel had captured, for the third time, in the Six Day War.
Regarded as a harbinger of peace in the Middle East, but roundly denounced by the PLO, Iran and such Arab states as Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, the treaty left Egypt – the pre-eminent Arab power – virtually isolated in the Muslim world for some years to come.
The treaty has benefited both sides.
Although Israel gave up territorial depth for the sake of peace, it removed Egypt as a potential military threat. Egypt, which fought wars with Israel in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973, has been neutralized as an enemy. Yet the majority of Egyptians are still hostile to Israel and regard it as a usurper of Palestinian rights, while Islamic fundamentalists have called for the cancellation of the treaty. For Israel, the treaty was a landmark, breaking its isolation in the Arab world and opening the road for its rapprochement with the PLO in 1993 and Jordan in 1994.
By making peace with Israel, Egypt retrieved the Sinai Peninsula, a vast, pristine wilderness brimming with oil and gas fields and tourist potential. Egypt was also able to channel scarce resources to nation building and re-establish ties with the United States, all at the expense of the old Soviet Union. By forming something of an alliance with Washington, Egypt made itself eligible for U.S. aid packages, totalling almost $2 billion per year, and the latest American weaponry to modernize its armed forces.
The treaty has endured despite a series of crises: Sadat’s assassination in 1981 at the hands of Muslim radicals, the formation of a new government headed by Hosni Mubarak, Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Palestinian uprisings in 1987 and 2000, the Second Lebanon War in 2006 and, most recently, Israel’s war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Two of these events prompted Egypt to recall its ambassador in Israel. Saad Mortada, Egypt’s first envoy, was recalled in 1982 in protest over the Sabra and Shatila massacre in Beirut. He did not return. His successor, Mohammed Bassiouny, Egypt’s longest-serving ambassador to Israel, was ordered home shortly after the eruption of the second intifadah in 2000. Four years passed before a replacement, Assem Ibrahim, presented his credentials in Israel.
During the war in Gaza, Mubarak was pressured to recall Ibrahim. Mubarak kept Ibrahim in Tel Aviv, having accused Hamas of igniting the war by breaking the ceasefire that Egypt had painstakingly arranged six months earlier, and is now trying to resurrect.
Despite its mercurial relationship with Egypt, Israel regards the treaty as a strategic prize to be nurtured and honed.
Apart from its geo-political dimensions, the treaty has been mutually advantageous in commercial terms.
Israel’s economic relations with Egypt rest on two pillars – the sale of Egyptian natural gas to Israel and the presence of Qualifying Industrial Zones in Egypt. (In the past, Israel has also bought oil from Egypt).
In 2005, in a $2.5-billion deal, Israel agreed to buy 1.7 billion cubic metres of natural gas from Egypt over 15 years.
Egyptian nationalists and Islamists tried to torpedo the deal, claiming that Egypt was selling its gas too cheaply. A lower court halted the flow, but last month, a higher court suspended that ruling.
Five years ago, Israel and Egypt signed a trade agreement, brokered by Washington, establishing Qualified Industrial Zones in Cairo, Alexandria and Port Said. Under the pact, Egypt may export clothes and textiles, its chief exports, to the United States on a duty-free basis as long as they contain Israeli manufactured segments.
The agreement has created at least 15,000 jobs in Egypt, no small feat for a poverty-stricken Third World nation that suffers from chronic unemployment and underemployment.
Egypt reaps profit from the unsullied beauty of the Sinai, thanks to the Israelis who vacation there in droves, in contrast to the minuscule number of Egyptians who visit Israel.
Islamic terrorists, aided by Bedouins, bombed hotels in Taba and Sharm el-Sheikh in 2004 and 2005, killing and wounding scores of western and Israeli tourists. These incidents have scared off some travellers, but the Sinai is still a big draw.
Israel’s expertise in agriculture, particularly in arid area farming, has been useful to the Egyptians. Israel has built experimental farms in Egypt, helping Egyptian farmers increase their crop yield.
This level of co-operation and normalization has been sorely lacking in professional, political and cultural exchanges, which are practically non-existent.
The Egyptian government blocked Ali Salem, one of Egypt’s most eminent playwrights, from personally accepting an honorary degree from Ben-Gurion University. Amr Waked, an Egyptian actor, was reprimanded by the actors’ union for appearing in a U.S. miniseries opposite an Israeli actor.
In 2004, a Cairo judge banned the formation of an Egyptian-Israeli friendship society. In the same year, the speaker of Egypt’s parliament rejected an Israeli invitation to address the Knesset to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the peace treaty. Last year, opposition politicians protested when the Israeli ambassador suggested that Hebrew be added to the list of foreign languages in the Egyptian school curriculum. Meanwhile, several members of parliament campaigned to stop an annual Israeli pilgrimage to the grave of a famous Moroccan-born rabbi buried north of Cairo.
The Egyptian media, both state-owned and private, have regularly carried anti-Israel and anti-Semitic content, bashing Israel for its settlement policies in the West Bank and its treatment of the Palestinians. Egyptian school texts have defamed Israel and Jews. In 2002, Egyptian state television broadcast an inflammatory series, Horseman without a Horse, adapted from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Keenly aware of anti-Israel currents, Mubarak has never visited Israel, except for a three-hour trip in 1995 to attend prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral.
Anti-Israel feeling has also been whipped by Israeli reports that 250 Egyptian prisoners of war were shot during the Six Day War, by the convictions of Egyptians accused of spying for Israel and by Israel’s refusal to give up its nuclear arsenal and sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Despite the acrimony, Israel and Egypt are committed to preserving the treaty, realizing that its abrogation would serve no one’s interest and could be destabilizing. Three decades ago, the Middle East turned a corner when Israel and Egypt made peace, but Israel must surely wonder whether the Arabs will ever produce another figure like Sadat.