Forty years after Sadat visit, Egyptian-Israeli peace faces uncertain future

It was on November 19, 1977 that Sadat stunned the world by visiting Jerusalem.

ANWAR SADAT and Menachem Begin chat during the former Egyptian president’s historic visit to Jerusalem in 1977.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
ANWAR SADAT and Menachem Begin chat during the former Egyptian president’s historic visit to Jerusalem in 1977.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
At first glance, relations between Israel and Egypt seem quite solid forty years after President Anwar Sadat's historic visit to Jerusalem.
It was on November 19, 1977 that Sadat stunned the world by visiting Jerusalem and breaking the psychological barrier produced by three decades that were marked by wars and belligerency. In his speech to the Knesset, the Egyptian leader declared: "Sincerely I tell you we welcome you among us with full security and safety."
But he also stressed that peace would require Israel to withdraw from all of the territories captured in 1967 and to accept Palestinian statehood. "Any talk about permanent peace based on justice and any move to ensure our coexistence in peace and security in this part of the world would become meaningless while you occupy Arab territories by force of arms."
Today, despite the continuation of Israeli military control in the West Bank, security and governmental ties are unprecedentedly close. Both countries are keen to see Islamic State's insurgency in Sinai routed and they are reportedly working together towards that end. Both view Hamas in the Gaza Strip as a threat. Both are keen to counter Iranian influence in the region.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has an open line to President Abdul-Fatah al-Sisi, while, according to Ben Gurion University Egypt specialist Yoram Meital, Israel lobbies in Washington on Sisi's behalf, urging US decision makers against decreasing aid to Egypt over its alleged human rights violations.
"During the past two years relations have been a kind of honeymoon,"Meital says.
But in fact the peace is not on such a firm footing. Relations between the peoples have not developed at all. "Anything that isn't security or correct diplomacy does not exist in the relationship," says Ofir Winter, an Egypt specialist at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). Economic ties are very limited, while there are no cultural, scientific or sports relations.
Ten days ago, Sisi gave the keynote speech at a youth conference on world peace. Youth groups were invited from all over the world while the Egyptian hosts stressed Cairo's role in advancing stability and peace. No Israelis were invited.
There was also a recent government-organized conference in Sharm al-Sheikh aimed at promoting dialogue between monotheistic faiths. No Jews were invited.
As Winter notes, the official media is rife with reports of a conspiracy in which Israel supports the Islamic state insurgency in Sinai. In school textbooks, Israel does not appear on the map.
In a phone interview from Alexandria. Moomen Sallam, director of, a secular and liberal web portal, blamed the cold peace on an Egyptian government policy of actively discouraging citizens from having contact with Israel and on Israeli policies that alienate Egyptian public opinion such as expanding settlements at Palestinian expense.
The Egyptian regime believes that preventing citizens from engaging in normalization and keeping the peace cold advances its interests, says Sallam. "They can market themselves to the world as the only peacemakers in Egypt and the only ones who can save the peace agreement. If the international community is convinced that any democratization in Egypt can lead to war with Israel or threaten the security of Israel it won't press the regime for political reform. This is one of the arguments they use with the Europeans and Americans along with saying that [pressing the regime] will bring Islamists to power."
According to an article coauthored by Winter and Sallam published by INSS, Egyptian liberals also believe that by continuing to nurture an image of Israel as an external enemy, the regime seeks to distract attention from domestic hardships and its harming of individual rights. Despite this, Winter says that Sisi himself has made positive changes in presidential discourse about Israel.
Sallam was prevented last January from traveling to an INSS conference in Tel Aviv and says there have been lots of similar cases.
A special permit is needed from security authorities to travel to Israel. "It's impossible to have any relation with any Israeli institute, you get calls from security," he says. "Why is it that our president meets with Netanyahu but any Egyptian cannot meet any Israeli even as a friend? We cannot meet and talk normally without a security problem. If you are with the government, you can have contact under supervision. But if you are away from the government you can't have contact."
There are also Israeli reasons for the cold peace, Sallam says. "I sometimes doubt Netanyahu is interested in warm peace. He's just interested in security and some economic cooperation. I don't think he cares about peace between the societies."
In Winter's view, Israel contributes to the cold peace by not pressing Egypt to warm it up. It fears that Egypt would demand concessions to the Palestinians in return for normalization steps and expanding the peace beyond its present narrow confines, he says. Winter believes the Israeli government should push Egypt for normalization while at the same time "unfreeze the peace process" with the Palestinians, with whom the Egyptian public feels solidarity.
Asked whether Israel presses Egypt to warm up the peace, Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said "Our embassy in Cairo tries to get the Egyptian people closer to Israeli messages. It's not always easy."
"Relations between the governments are good and we are working to strengthen them even more. The priority for the moment is working between governments on strategic challenges we both face."
Sallam says Netanyahu "should encourage our regime to remove obstacles to the peace camp in Egypt and those interested in visiting Israel."
Policies such as expanding settlements undermine the case for peace with Israel, Sallam says. "When you keep taking for the settlers and build and build and build what is there left to negotiate about?When Egyptians see that Israel is taking, taking and taking they wonder where will the Palestinian state be. It makes Egyptians doubt that Israel is really willing to solve the problem and make peace."
Similarly, he said that the way Israel waged Operation Protective Edge in Gaza was "on the human level not acceptable for anyone. The Israeli army should act like a professional army where the [militant] leader is a target. But when you destroy a whole city no one will accept that. And the Egyptian media says look they are killing women, children and old men. When you punish, punish the terrorist, not his family, not the whole city he came from. It makes Israel's image worse and gives enemies of peace proof that Israel is not a nation of peace."
In Sallam's view, the peace can be warmed up if civil society on both sides "try to have relations, try to communicate and try to have a culture of peace. Part of the problem is that people are the enemy of what they don't know and Egyptians don't know anything about Israel except the propaganda from the Egyptian media. And few Israelis know anything about Egyptian society. Through communication we can solve this problem. Even if it is not possible to visit each other we can use internet forums and websites to have this communication."
Winter says that despite there being very strong shared interests at the moment, that doesn't necessarily mean the peace is immune from deterioration in the longer term.
"What we are seeing is dependent on circumstances," he says. "If tomorrow morning the Sinai problem is solved, relations can deteriorate. There is no guarantee that in the future the security relations can hold up the peace when circumstances change. If the shared interests change, there can be a deterioration. That is why it is problematic that the peace remains cold and confined to security without deep civilian, economic and popular roots."