Jewish Ideas Daily: Frail reeds?

The Egypt-Israel treaty remains the best template for any future accord with Syria or the Palestinians.

By ELLIOT JAGER
February 6, 2011 22:40
4 minute read.
Netanyahu, Obama and Mubarak in Washington

Netanyahu Obama Mubarak 311. (photo credit: mct)

Observing Egypt’s current upheaval, a writer for Makor Rishon has ventured the thought that no matter who takes power, “the lesson for Israel is clear: Arab regimes cannot be trusted.”

Above all, it is futile to pursue a modus vivendi with the Arabs based on the old formula of “land for peace.”

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Is he right? Was the peace treaty with Egypt, involving a withdrawal from the Sinai in exchange for recognition, a mistake? At the time, only two members of Menachem Begin’s Likud-led cabinet – Ariel Sharon and Haim Landau – thought so. In a subsequent Knesset vote, Yitzhak Shamir, another Likud stalwart, abstained. The worry of these hard-liners was that trading land for peace, rather than “peace for peace,” would set a dangerous precedent when it came to negotiating over the Jewish heartland of Judea and Samaria.

Such objections seemed beside the point as the border with Egypt was opened, direct air-links were established between Tel Aviv and Cairo and Begin toured the pyramids. Nor did they gain further traction when dissident members of the Likud, including Geula Cohen and Moshe Shamir, bolstered by writer Shmuel Katz, an old Begin comrade-in-arms and briefly a member of his cabinet, broke away to establish the Tehiya or Renaissance party. Tehiya won three seats in the July 1981 elections, in 1982 vociferously opposed turning over the northern Sinai settlement of Yamit to Egyptian sovereignty, and went on to win five seats in 1984 before being supplanted in 1992 by a like-minded Tzomet.

With Egypt now tottering between autocracy and an unknown future, and Israelis contemplating the possibility of an Iran-like takeover by the Muslim Brotherhood, are the arguments of Tehiya about to gain new resonance? In truth, Israeli officials had few illusions about the nature of peace with Egypt, especially after the 1981 assassination of the principal peacemaker, Anwar Sadat, and the ascendancy of Hosni Mubarak. The latter in effect gave an ultimatum: Make peace with the PLO on the PLO’s terms or be resigned to a cold “peace” with Egypt.

Though wary of Mubarak’s profligate military buildup (fueled partly by US aid) and irritated by Egypt’s debilitating intrigues against Israel at the UN, its duplicitous campaigning against Israel’s nuclear capacity and its unwillingness to stop the smuggling of arms into Hamas-ruled Gaza – not to mention the rank anti-Semitism of its state-controlled media – policymakers nevertheless chose the cold peace.

No wonder. Providentially, Begin’s treaty was anchored in the demilitarization of the Sinai, not in the durability of Egypt’s good intentions. It was designed, in short, for the possibility that “a new king would arise in Egypt who knew not Begin.”

As a result, for the past 30 years, Egypt has been neutralized as a confrontation state. In those years, Israel defended itself against two violent Palestinian uprisings, two Lebanon wars, Hamas’s aggression from Gaza and Iran’s drive for the atomic bomb without having to divert resources to the southern front. And there were diplomatic and economic advantages to the relationship as well, including the fact that 40 percent of our natural gas used is imported from Egypt.

AS HAS been amply reported, Israelis are more anxious than most about Mubarak’s fate. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has reportedly instructed the country’s emissaries to say only that while democratic change is desirable, violent revolutionary mayhem will undermine the security of the entire region. Even President Shimon Peres, who in a previous incarnation giddily foresaw a Scandinavia-like Middle East emerging by spontaneous generation from the Oslo Accords, has now asserted forthrightly that there may be worse things than the current lack of democracy in Cairo, and a fanatic Islamist regime is one of them.

Is the lesson, then, that leaders should abandon the possibility of reaching an accommodation with the Palestinians or Syrians? Not at all. Rather, the cornerstones of any deal must take account of the possibility that the successors of the peacemakers might reject peace. For any future accord, the Egypt-Israel treaty, designed for a worst-case scenario and providing demilitarization, strategic depth and early-warning-plus-verification procedures, remains the best template.

This lesson has hardly been lost on Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, whose Bar-Ilan University peace proposal emphasized precisely the security parameters essential for peace. That proposal, however, has been blatantly and irresponsibly disregarded by his critics. As a result, too little serious thinking has been devoted to the complex security arrangements Israel will need in the West Bank and on the Golan should genuine Arab peace partners emerge, Sadatlike, in the future.

The writer is a former Jerusalem Post editorial page editor, and is now contributing editor to Jewish Ideas Daily (www.jewishideasdaily.com), where this article was first published and is reprinted with permission.


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