Five different events are being held in Israel to mark 40 years since the groundbreaking signing on the White House Lawn on March 26, 1979, of the Egyptian-Israeli peace accord.
Tellingly, only one commemorative event is being held in Egypt, and that one is being sponsored by the US Embassy in Cairo, said Ofir Winter, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.
Winter’s comments came at one of those Israel events: an all-day symposium last week at Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Truman Institute that looked at different aspects of the peace agreement.
“The peace is not an event celebrated in Egypt,” Winter said. “If the peace is mentioned, it is within the context of the October War that led to the peace, and more importantly, led to the liberation of the Sinai.”
Those were intoxicating days, March 1979, when Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, prime minister Menachem Begin and US President Jimmy Carter clasped hands on the White House lawn and signed the landmark “Framework for Peace in the Middle East.”
Begin, speaking of the agreement a few months earlier at the Nobel Prize Ceremony where he was awarded the prize together with Sadat, uttered his memorable words, “No more war. No more bloodshed.”
Together with an end to war, there were also dreams – at least in Israel – of full buses of nationals from each country crossing the border numerous times a day; of academic cooperation and Egyptian students studying at Israeli universities.
There were also hopes of joint business ventures, shared cultural events and opportunities.
Some 40 years later, Begin’s pledge of “no more war, no more bloodshed,” has held, and this is major achievement that forever changed Israel. It removed the largest, strongest, most important Arab state from the circle of countries with which Israel was at war, and gave its strategic planners the ability to turn energy and resources to other fronts.
As former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon said two weeks ago, this agreement put an end to the Israeli-Arab conflict, and left the country alone with an Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“When we look back at the agreement, there has not been a threat of conventional war against Israel since it was signed,” he said. “No Arab leader or Arab army dared to challenge Israel as army-against-army, and the Yom Kippur War was the last war the Arab leaders initiated against us.”
When it comes to the absence of war and the scope and breadth of the military and intelligence cooperation, the Israeli-Egyptian peace – 40 years later – is a “hot peace.” As Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi acknowledged in a 60 Minutes interview in January, security cooperation between the two countries is as close as it has ever been.
“We have a wide range of cooperation with the Israelis,” he admitted.
But when it comes the people-to-people aspect of the agreement, it remains – as Egyptian diplomat and later UN secretary-general Boutros Boutros-Ghali called it in the 1980s – a “cold peace.”
The Israeli and Egyptian government have strong relations – especially the defense and security establishments and the leaders at the top – but the people do not.
Forty years later, peace has not seeped down into the masses, with Egyptians still widely viewing Israel in an extremely negative light.
Dan Kurtzer, who arrived in Cairo as a junior US diplomat shortly after the signing of the accord – and who then went on to serve as the US ambassador both in Cairo and then in Tel Aviv – said the peace failed to trickle down because it takes a long, long time to change attitudes.
“The Arab states, including Egypt, created a problem for themselves,” he told the Magazine. “Because of their own weaknesses – in terms of governance, authoritarianism, poverty, and the inability to provide for their people – they created this giant problem of Zionism and Israel as a means of deflecting attention. So for many, many years, if you look at the Arab summit meetings – there would be 25 issues on the agenda, and the only thing they could agree on would be the condemnation of Israel on the Palestinian issue.”
FOR ALL these years, the Arab public became persuaded that Israel was “this horrible, alien part of the region,” Kurtzer said, adding, “It wasn’t easy to turn that around on a dime.”
That same pattern – strong relations at the governmental and security plane, but poor relations at the people-to-people level – has repeated itself with Jordan.
It is also the reason, diplomatic sources say, why it is so difficult to get some of the Arab states with which Israel is now in close contact to come out into the open with those ties: because the street is simply not ready for it.
Sadat made a strategic decision to make peace with Israel, and he was able to bring along his military chiefs and some members of his government, but the Egyptian public was a different story, Kurtzer said.
He added that after an “initial moment of euphoria,” the public looked at a number of developments and soured to the process.
Kurtzer noted that from the time the agreement was signed until Israel withdrew from the Sinai in 1982, Israel attacked the nuclear reactor in Iran, laws were enacted in the Knesset annexing Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, and a dispute over the demarcation line in Taba emerged that was not solved until 1989. Then, after Sadat was assassinated in 1981, Israel invaded Lebanon a year later and settlement construction continued.
“All of this can be explained from the Israeli perspective,” Kurtzer said. “But if you look at it from the perspective of the Egyptian public, they are saying, ‘Wait a minute, we got our territory back, but Israel is still this horrible thing we have been told about all these years.’”
Therefore, he said, there was not a great clamor for full normalization from below.
Yitzhak Levanon, who served as Israel’s ambassador to Cairo from 2009 to 2011 and was Israel’s envoy when the embassy was ransacked in September 2011, said the peace did not trickle down because the leadership at the top – namely Hosni Mubarak, who ruled the country for 30 years from Sadat’s assassination in 1981 until his overthrow in 2011 – did not want it to trickle down.
After the Arab League expelled Egypt from its ranks because of the peace agreement, and after one Arab country after the next turned its back on Cairo, Mubarak felt the need to return to the bosom of the Arab world, Levanon said.
The way he did that, he continued, was to convince it that while he could not annul the peace treaty, “I will not fill it with any content.” His idea, Levanon said, “was to keep the frame, but remove the picture – the bilateral relations – inside.”
In Egypt, as in most other Arab states, he said, the public looked to the leadership for signals of how to think about and act toward Israel, and drew their conclusions accordingly.
“The general public in Egypt saw that Mubarak did not visit Israel – except for three hours for the funeral of Shimon Peres,” Levanon said. “Instead, he moved forward with improving ties with the Arab world. What the public understood is that if you place Israel and the Arab world on a scale, The Arab world takes precedence.”
Levanon said that following the assassination of Sadat, Mubarak became fearful of the Islamic radicals – the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which actually killed Sadat. The Egyptian president wanted to ensure stability, and decided “to give a little rope to the Muslim Brotherhood,” Levanon said.
The deal he cut was that the Muslim BROTHERHOOD would not interfere in Cairo’s relations with Israel and the US, and he would let them control the professional unions.
“What he did was to let them gain control over the labor unions, without exception – the doctors, engineers, pharmacists – and they took the decision to have no ties with Israel, no invitation to Israelis. The first thing these unions said, was, ‘Israel, nyet.’”
ACCORDING TO the former ambassador, Mubarak, when asked about the cold peace, would always say it was not governmental policy, but rather decisions being made by the unions.
Mubarak never wanted to annul the peace treaty, he just wanted it both ways, Levanon maintained. He wanted the benefits of the treaty – including the peace with Israel and the resulting economic assistance from the US – but without normalization with Israel.
The Egyptian leader, Levanon added, managed to convince the Arab world that he was unable to go against the US and annul the agreement, “but that does not mean that I have to hug and kiss the Jews.” His recipe was to keep a distance, and link normalization to progress on the Palestinian track.
Another factor in the negative perception of Israel was the Egyptian press, which was – and continues to be – very negative to Israel, and is oftentimes antisemitic.
Levanon pointed out that the press in Egypt is overwhelmingly controlled by the government and that the government could have changed the tone in the media had it desired. But, he said, it had no such desire.
Hebrew University Prof. Elie Podeh, who counts Egypt as among his main fields of expertise, characterized the Egyptian press as part of the peace treaty’s Achilles’ heel. He said the reason the government does not clamp down on the anti-Israel press is because it “wants to allow ventilation,” so that the criticism of the press “will not be toward the government but toward Israel and other actors.”
Other weaknesses in the treaty he enumerated at the Truman Institute conference included the unions, a hostile parliament, an educational system that does nothing to contribute to the promotion of peace, opposition by intellectuals across the Egyptian political spectrum, and obstacles put in the way of Egyptians who might want to travel to Israel.
“Israel is still one of the countries where you have to get special permission to visit, so you are put on a list – and you don’t want to get on the list,” he said. “Visiting Israel is not easy – it is expensive and the government very much does not want to encourage it.”
While the failure of the peace to trickle down to the masses is one of its weak points, Podeh said the accord does have a number of firm, immovable assets.
The first is that there has been no withdrawing from the treaty, even during times of great challenges – wars, intifadas and even the short reign of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi as president.
Other firm elements of the agreement are the honoring to the letter of “military agreements” in the accord and the limits it places on Egyptian troops in Sinai; the continued existence of embassies and consulates; the free passage through the Suez Canal; the formal nullification of the Arab boycott against Israel; the prevention of terrorist attacks from the Egyptian side of the border; the maintenance of land, sea and air connections between the two countries; the maintenance of minimal trade, which has been helped by triangular trade with the US; and permitting – though not encouraging – tourism from Israel.
Podeh said in order to raise the overall temperature of the peace, Israel “can and should solve the Palestinian issue, which is very heavy on the Egyptian public – they want to see it solved.” And Egypt, he said, “needs involvement from above to promote a culture of peace.”
After 40 years, Podeh said, the temperature of the peace is “cold” in some respects – such as normalization of ties – and “hot” in others, such as on security and intelligence issues. He called the peace “lukewarm,” “durable” and gave it a “passing” grade. And, he stressed, what is very important to keep in mind is that by now, the two countries have been at peace longer than they were ever in a state of war.