Upon his return from his historic November 1977 visit to Jerusalem, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat was greeted by an unprecedented chorus of approval. An estimated two million Egyptians followed his motorcade all the way from the airport to the presidential palace chanting slogans hailing Sadat and peace.
Some 15 years later, as I was posted to Egypt as ambassador, Prof. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, the well-known sociologist and defender of human rights who had been against the peace process and vocal in his opposition to the visit, told me that he had believed at the time that there was nothing spontaneous in the demonstrations and that they had been staged by the Mukhabarat – the intelligence service.
He commissioned a public opinion survey – one of the first ever carried in the country – and was so stunned by the results, which showed that 60% of Egyptians were in favor of peace that he thought there must have been a mistake and ordered a second survey.
Faced by the same results, he came to the conclusion that the people had had enough of bloody and costly wars going nowhere and wanted to see better living conditions. They were convinced that peace would quickly bring the hoped-for improvement. That led him to change his mind and to become a partisan of peace.
Sadat’s initiative was viewed differently in Israel. Though the Egyptian president received a warm welcome, the visit, organized hastily in barely 10 days following his surprising November 9 announcement that he intended to come to Jerusalem, was met with a great deal of suspicion. There had been too many wars and too much hatred. Nevertheless, there was a flutter of hope. Could peace be possible? There were even those who dreamed that Egypt would become a bridge to peace with the Arab world.
One has to understand what led Muhammad Anwar el-Sadat to take that fateful step. Becoming president following the death of president Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1970, he found himself at the helm of a country exhausted after four useless wars that had badly impacted the county’s economic growth. Nasser’s socialist revolution, nationalizing industry and initiating an equalitarian agrarian reform, brought industrial and agricultural production to a standstill and reduced exports to a minimum, mainly oil cotton and textiles. Half the country lived below the poverty line.
Something drastic had to be done and he was visionary enough to decide to do it. He got rid of the old pro-Soviet Nasserist guard, freed tens of thousands of Muslim Brothers imprisoned after a failed attempt at assassinating Nasser in the hope that they would help him in his fight again the Nasserists and expelled all Soviet military units stationed in the country.
He understood that only America could help with grants, investments and technology – and believed that Israel was the key to that help. As early as in 1971, he sent through UN and US emissaries a number of proposals for interim agreements as preliminary for peace.
However, positions on both sides were too far apart. Sadat wanted Israel to withdraw from all territories conquered in 1967 – not only in Egypt, but on the West Bank as well. In the end, he decided to break the deadlock by launching an attack in October 1973. Israeli leaders who were convinced that Egypt would not attempt such a strategic decision were taken completely by surprise. The rest, as they say, is history.
NEVERTHELESS, IT must be kept in mind that on several occasions, Egyptians made a point of reminding us that Egypt made peace with Israel because it needed that peace and that we should not expect love or even friendship.
Together with Israeli misgivings, the misunderstanding concerning Sadat’s motives – and pressure exerted by US president Jimmy Carter – explain why negotiations stalled again and again until a draft was agreed upon and peace was signed in Washington on March 26, 1979.
In February 1980, the Foreign Ministry dispatched a first team to Cairo, led by its deputy director-general Yossi Hadas, to open an embassy. I had been appointed political counselor in that embassy and was thus involved in the negotiations of some of the normalization agreements regarding trade, agriculture, land routes, aviation, tourism, police cooperation and more. The intention was to give the articles in the peace treaty dealing with normalization the necessary legal framework.
After the shock awaiting people arriving for the first time in the sprawling metropolis and its 15 million people, its thousand mosques, the never-ending din made by millions of cars and the dire poverty of some parts of the city, the team of dedicated Israeli diplomats who had arrived in Egypt with their families had to face a complex reality.
On the one hand, taxi drivers, discovering we were Israelis, would greet us with a resounding “Long live the peace! Long live Begin and Sadat!” Often they invited us to drink to peace together and stop by a nearby kiosk to buy a bottle of Coca-Cola – thus proving that Saad Eddin Ibrahim was right.
On the other hand, we could not get a suitable building for the embassy or even a residence for the ambassador, and no one was keen to get close to us. The long years of war and their heavy human losses, relentless incitement against Israel, Islamic education and its bias against Jews as well as the fear of the omnipresent security services were taking their toll. There were very few positive articles about the peace in the media and the overall mood regarding Israel and the Jews remained hostile.
The representatives of 27 corporations – doctors, engineers, lawyers, journalists and others – met and decided to forbid their members from any contact with Israelis. Government authorities prevented Egyptian citizens from visiting Israel and a special permit was needed to travel there (as is still needed today.) A few businessmen did receive permission to go after being vetted by the special services.
Still, there were a few rays of hope. El Al started flying to Cairo and the occasion was marked by a gala reception in the Nile Hilton. Israel’s complete withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula on April 25, 1982, in accordance with the peace treaty, was greeted by popular rejoicing and what was perceived as the beginning of a thaw. It was not to be.
Relations between the two countries were soon limited to the fields of energy, air transport and incoming tourism, in effect signaling that there was peace but no normalization between the people.
Yet there was one domain in which collaboration between the two countries bore fruit: agriculture. It was started by Ariel Sharon, then minister of agriculture, who had been invited in 1980 by Sadat who told him “take a plane, see the reality, give us some advice and let’s get to work.”
The cooperation agreement subsequently negotiated included the creation of model farms on the Cairo-Alexandria road where Israeli experts demonstrated to a succession of thousands of Egyptian farmers modern techniques. At the same time, thousands of young Egyptians were sent to Kibbutz Bror Hayil to be trained in new agricultural technologies. Upon their return, they were given a plot of land by Egyptian authorities to develop the cultures they had been taught.
All this was done under the supervision Egyptian agriculture minister Yousef Wali, and with the blessing of the president. The results were outstanding; Egypt began to be self-sufficient in vegetables and fruits and is now exporting high-end produce, such as strawberries, to Europe.
This fruitful cooperation was bitterly resented by nationalist and Islamic circles, which accused Israel of “poisoning” Egyptian soil. The government did nothing to dismiss these allegations. Agricultural cooperation stopped with the fall of president Hosni Mubarak and has not been renewed since.
WHEN I came back to Egypt in 1996 as ambassador, I found that very little had changed. The expected improvement in living conditions had not materialized and the mood had turned sour. Attacks in the media had grown more virulent; openly antisemitic caricatures appeared almost daily. The Arabic translation of Mein Kampf and The Protocols of Elders of Zion had become bestsellers (a new edition was on display at the 2019 Cairo book fair).
The wildest conspiracy theories were discussed in the Egyptian parliament.
One story sums up the extent of the anti-Israeli feelings. The head of my Egyptian security detail was killed in a traffic accident. I wanted to express my condolences to his widow; however, I was informed that she refused point blank, saying that no one knew that her husband was protecting the Israeli ambassador and that should that “shameful fact” be known, her daughters would never find husbands.
Needless to say, cooperation remained limited. In Israel there had been hope that the 1993 Oslo agreements would lead to a measure of normalization. Indeed, in 1995, a few Israeli companies dared launch industrial ventures. Most were defeated by bureaucracy and ill will.
The Merhav group of Yossi Maiman, which had established the Midor oil refinery complex in Alexandria together with Egyptian businessman Hussein Salem, a close friend of Mubarak, sold its share to Qatar.
A pipeline built to supply Egyptian gas to Israel for a period of 15 years through the Sinai Peninsula was blown up by Islamic terrorists time and time again, and the army that had taken over after the ouster of Mubarak was unable to protect it. After the 12th explosion, the lucrative deal for Egypt was halted.
The only project still operating today is Delta Textile, the brainchild of the late Dov Lautman. Its state-of-the-art factory made quality underwear for Marks and Spencer. Together with its satellite plants, it employs 5,000 Egyptians and brings in millions of dollars. Under a 2004 tripartite agreement between the US, Israel and Egypt, that country will be able to export goods from qualified industrial zones (QIZ) duty-free as long as 10.5% of the content from those goods was sourced from Israel. Textile exports to the US rose from $200 million in 2005 to $1.2 billion in 2018. Last February, the partners in the Leviathan and Tamar gas fields signed an agreement with the Egyptian Dolphinus Holdings company to supply 64 billion cubic meters during 10 years for $15 billion.
On March 26, we mark the 40th anniversary of the peace treaty. Forty years of upheavals: Israel conducted wars in Lebanon and Gaza and was confronted by two intifadas; Egypt saw a president assassinated and two others ousted from power. The embassy of Israel in Giza was stormed by a crowd whipped into frenzy.
Peace has endured against all odds because both countries know that they need it. True, normalization is still a distant dream and incitement against the Jews and Israel is not abating. Last Friday, two weeks before the landmark anniversary, the General Assembly of the Egyptian Press Syndicate “declared its adherence to its previous decision to ban all forms of professional and personal normalization with the Zionist entity and to ban any meetings of its members,” adding that those who violate that decision would be punished.
Nevertheless, not all is what it seems. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has launched a praiseworthy campaign to tone down anti-Jewish Islamic rhetoric. There is unprecedented security cooperation regarding the common threat of Islamic insurgency in the Sinai. Though Egypt did not turn into a bridge for peace, it made peace between Israel and Jordan possible and contacts between the Jewish State and a number of Arab kingdoms, though carefully downplayed, are multiplying.
Altogether, as we enter the fifth decade of peace, there is room for cautious optimism.
The writer is a former ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden, and a senior researcher at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
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