IT’S THE GRANDDADDY OF ALL American diplomatic achievements in the Middle East.
It represents one of the greatest Western victories of the Cold War. It has
prevented the drift toward a region-wide Arab-Israeli military confrontation for
more than 30 years. It is the foundation both of Israel’s security doctrine and
the Jewish state’s transformation from an economic basket case into a firstworld
economic power. It has made possible every hopeful move toward Arab-Israeli
peace for the past generation. And it – the Egypt-Israel peace treaty – is
hanging on by a thread.
If the audacity of the joint Palestinian-
Egyptian, Gaza-to-Eilat terrorist attack in mid-August were not scary enough,
its potential to explode into a full-blown Egypt- Israel crisis was positively
In an instant, the real news story – a joint
Palestinian-Egyptian team of jihadist terrorists march 200 kilometers across
Sinai and then cross the border to launch multiple attacks on civilian targets,
only to return to Egyptian territory and escape into the biblical wilderness –
was airbrushed from history and the airwaves were instead filled with Arab
condemnations of Israeli perfidy for having the temerity of trying to pursue,
kill or capture terrorists.
Throngs took to the streets denouncing the
Camp David agreements and politicians took turns ramping up the popular frenzy
by calling for the recall of the Egyptian ambassador, the expulsion of his
Israeli counterpart, and even the suspension of the peace treaty
Cooler heads eventually prevailed.
Lubricated by an
almost-apology from Israel’s defense minister and a private visit by a senior
Israeli defense official, Egyptian officialdom – in the person of Minister of
Defense and de facto head of state, Field Marshal Muhammad Hussein al-Tantawi –
finally decided to calm the situation.
The lameduck Egyptian foreign
minister helpfully reminded his countrymen that Egypt’s national interests are
well-served by having an ambassador in Tel Aviv and the Supreme Command of the
Armed Forces, the country’s ruling clique since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak,
launched an operation to reclaim a measure of control in the largely lawless
Sinai. Perhaps reflecting the military’s mood, a proclaimed “million-man march”
against Israel drew only a few hundred protesters.
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Still, the damage was
done – or to be accurate, the aftermath of the Sinai attack only confirmed how
firmly embedded in Egyptian political culture is the phenomenon of antipathy
toward Israel. Today, there is no major political figure left on Egypt’s
national scene willing to defend peace with Israel. Among the Islamists, whose
poisonous anti-Semitism has been diluted of late as a tactic to earn swooning
praise from international media and global democracy activists, this is no
But this is even the case among the alleged liberals. Both
Ayman Nour, the Ghad party leader who owes his freedom from Mubarak’s jail to
the importuning of American political leaders and activists (many of them
Jewish) and Amr Moussa, the populist former Arab League secretary general who
earned a reputation among diplomats as a practical-minded wheelerdealer when he
served as foreign minister, have declared the Camp David era over. And they may
be the best of the lot.
TO BE ACCURATE, WHILE Egyptians evince no zest
for peace with Israel, they also show no appetite for war. Militias aren’t
forming to liberate Palestine; the same Muslim Brotherhood that sent activists
to help prevent the nakba during the Israel War of Independence 63 years ago is
far more concerned today with balancing three competing domestic goals –
achieving electoral success, preventing being outflanked by the even more
radical Salafists, and managing its on-again/off-again partnership with the
country’s military leadership.
Egyptians, the saying goes, are committed
to the Palestinian cause, just not to the Palestinian people. The result is that
many believe they can exist in a nether state of no war, no peace.
years of reducing the relationship with Israel to its most minimalist
components, it is not difficult to see how many Egyptians could reach that
conclusion. On the eve of the Tahrir Square uprising, the entire relationship
between these two neighbors had been whittled down to the sale of gas, the
operation of several low-profile economic zones, measured security cooperation
in constraining the activities of radical jihadists (especially those targeting
Egypt) and an uneasy political ménage à trois with the United
Israeli leaders visiting Cairo made a beeline to the presidential
palace for tea with Mubarak, a conversation with his intelligence chief and
perhaps his minister of defense, and flew home, satisfied that they had checked
the Egyptian box.
For years, this was sufficient – until it wasn’t
anymore. In the absence of public political investment – which Egypt’s leaders
never wanted to make and Israel’s leaders never considered essential – none of
these factors are strong enough, individually or collectively, to sustain a
Indeed, little of this is even likely to survive
Egypt’s revolutionary fervor.
Still, there is a huge difference between
an Egypt at peace with Israel, locked into a series of contractual obligations,
sustaining at least the skeleton of a security and intelligence relationship,
and desirous of Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic progress, if only to validate its
original go-it-alone move, and an Egypt untethered by any formal relationship
with Israel, swaying this way and that with the gyrations of the public mood,
sliding (perhaps backsliding) inexorably from peace to non-belligerency, to even
Forget the Palestinian gambit at the United Nations. Don’t lose
sleep about Grad missiles from Hamas. Fear not the threats of Syria’s Assad,
Hizballah’s Nasrallah or al- Qaeda’s Zawahiri. Compared to the potential demise
of Egypt-Israel peace, a huge bonanza to radicals of every stripe and a
strategic calamity nearly on par with the acquisition of nuclear weapons by the
Iranian mullahs, these are mere annoyances.
Egypt-Israel peace, at least to prevent a slow (and perhaps not so slow) descent
into belligerency, will be a team effort. Everyone with an interest in its
preservation has a role to play.
For the Egyptian military, that means
prosecuting “Operation Eagle” – the effort to recapture control of the Sinai –
to the fullest, sending the entire complement of 2,000 allowed troops into the
peninsula (not just 750) and rejecting the idea of an uneasy truce with the
Islamist-Bedouin alliance that owns much of that empty space. On the political
level, this will also see the military playing the pre-Erdogan role of the
Turkish army in terms of preventing Egypt’s rambunctious, revolutionary
political discourse from straying into areas where it risks national
For Israel, this will require the unnatural act of diplomatic
subtlety, creativity and restraint. For example, whereas Israel has legitimate
grounds not to apologize to Ankara over its outrageous role in the “Mavi
Marmara” incident, the Egyptian government’s actions in the Sinai attack were
nothing like that of Turkey’s at sea; a more generous statement on the
unfortunate killing of Egyptian security forces might have been both appropriate
Other Arab states should act, too. Saudi Arabia may be no
lover of Zion but the Saudis have no interest in a hostile Egyptian- Israeli
relationship diverting attention from the Iranian quest for regional
Here, Riyadh can help by stopping the flow of money to Salafis
and other radicals that has the impact of distorting politics and accentuating
the extremist narrative.
Ultimately, this effort will not succeed without
Washington. History will not be kind to President Barack Obama if he decides he
can trade a minor success in Libya for a strategic catastrophe in
America’s influence in the Middle East depends on its
relationships with Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. With Israel and Saudi Arabia,
the relationship is bound up in other equities (with the former, historic,
popular, cultural and strategic bonds; with the latter, oil).
the link is Camp David. If that connection suffers, America’s standing in the
region suffers, too. This will require high-level U.S. engagement, both before
and after Egypt’s election season, to remind Egyptians what is at stake in their
choice of political leaders and to remind those leaders that their choices have
In the end, two decades of disuse and neglect may have made
salvaging Egypt- Israel peace in the post-Mubarak era an impossible task. But
the stakes are too high not to try. • Robert Satloff is executive director of
The Washington Institute.
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