Can Israel refuse to revisit the cornerstone?

In the face of an Egypt hostile to the Camp David Accords, this country may have to consider renegotiation.

By M. M. LIEBERMAN
February 20, 2011 23:32
4 minute read.
Egypt Protest

Egypt Protest. (photo credit: AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

 
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Unlike the Passover story Israelis will soon commemorate, the liberation tale playing out in Egypt today leaves many Jews conflicted. Witnessing the Egyptian people cast off their millennial shackles resonates deeply for the descendants of that country’s Hebrew slaves. Yet the modern-day pharaohs’ more recent attempts to destroy the Jews have put security ahead of idealism as Israel’s highest priority. With the hard-won peace treaty now thrown into doubt, this tension seems difficult to reconcile.

Although the military has offered assurances that the country will respect the treaty, the army’s voice in a democratic Egypt may not be the only one that counts. Unfortunately, the sounds coming from erstwhile civilian leaders are not reassuring.

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For prominent Muslim Brotherhood figures to condemn the treaty is worrying, but to be expected.

More alarming is that leading liberal lights are echoing their refrain. Ayman Nour, head of the secular Ghad Party, recently declared the peace treaty “over”; at the least, he said, it must be renegotiated.

Mohamed ElBaradei, far from proclaiming the treaty “rock solid,” as has been reported, in fact pronounced its vitality dependent on progress with the Palestinians. Such statements must give pause to even the most optimistic Israelis.

THAT THE treaty is the linchpin of Israeli security needs little elaboration. Having to deal with a remilitarized Sinai would consume precious military resources, and embolden Hamas and Hezbollah and deflate deterrence. So the treaty’s abrogation need not mean war to be disastrous.

The treaty also serves Egypt’s interests. Few Egyptians have an interest in military posturing over domestic investment. Fewer still hunger for another round of conflict. The peace also lets Egypt sell $2 billion worth of gas to Israel each year – the same amount it receives in aid from the US.

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The bravery and sacrifice of the Egyptian people these past few weeks was intended to better their future, not pick at their scars. So what drives supposedly pragmatic leaders to question this mutually beneficial arrangement? Resentment over the plight of the Palestinians accounts for much of it, to be sure, as does the posturing to be expected of any politician. But also telling is the shattering humiliation that Camp David represents to so many. For the fourth time in as many decades Israel had defeated Egypt in war. It then occupied and settled the Sinai, before withdrawing from a position of strength. Because the treaty prohibits Egypt from stationing troops almost anywhere in the Sinai, it still cannot exercise full sovereignty over its entire territory. After the indignity of colonialism, dictatorship and defeat, many Egyptians want a clean slate.

The legitimacy of this position notwithstanding, Israel knows that many areas of concern lie outside the treaty’s scope. It still needs Egyptian cooperation to interdict arms to Hamas, hold back floods of refugees, allow its warships to transit the Suez Canal (commercial ships are protected under the treaty) and sell Israel natural gas. None of these are guaranteed by Camp David. If anti-Israeli sentiment is so high that the Nours and ElBaradeis are already indulging in such talk, something may have to give.

The question Israel might soon face is whether the provisions of the treaty Egypt could ask to renegotiate are worth the costs that Egypt might seek to unilaterally impose.

Some concessions are not unthinkable. Twice in the past month, Israel has approved more than 800 Egyptian soldiers in Sinai to bolster security after attacks on police stations and a pipeline. And in the past few years, it has allowed Egyptian police along the Gaza border to intercept weapons destined for Hamas.

If Egypt remains reasonable, Israel could find that revisiting Camp David would mean little more than formalizing facts on the ground, and would allow for a benign, if somewhat expanded, military presence. It might even open the door to a warmer relationship.

Of course, the Egyptians calling for Camp David’s revision or elimination are not doing so to further Israeli interests. Israel may have to be prepared to make other concessions – for example, allowing purely civilian articles into Gaza in exchange for a commitment to police the entry of arms. And any arrangement will be difficult to sustain in Egypt without real progress on peace with the Palestinians. On this score, ElBaradei was merely expressing a fact.

EVEN WITH some maneuvering room, Israel should be extremely wary. Simply agreeing to renegotiation might fuel nationalistic tendencies that demagogues could exploit, and it may be hard for any Egyptian negotiator to stop short of maximalist demands. Still, if a new regime insists on it, and threatens other vital interests, Israel may do well to consider its options.

Welcome or not, the new era will present both pitfalls and opportunities. Israeli diplomacy will have to be flexible and creative to ensure that when its neighbors break their age-old chains and overthrow their overseers, it is not at its expense as well. In this light, however inopportune, Israel may decide that the cornerstone of its security must be resurfaced without being removed.

The writer is a fellow with the Truman National Security Project, and an international attorney in Washington, DC.

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