How stable is the Egypt-Israel peace treaty?

The future Egyptian government must be rational and realize that adhering to the terms set out in the 1979 peace treaty with Israel is in the vital interests of the country.

Egyptian Soldiers 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Egyptian Soldiers 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Countries adhere to the onerous obligations that are set forth under international treaties for two self-serving reasons: Either they believe that compliance will ultimately benefit them, or they are apprehensive that violating a treaty will bring about negative consequences. Often, it is a combination of both factors.
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The Egyptian government did not sign the 1979 peace treaty with Israel because of support for the Jewish national movement and neither former president Anwar El Sadat nor current President Hosni Mubarak became card carrying members of the World Zionist Organisation. They were of course, acting in Egypt's interests.
The 1979 treaty was crafted in such a way as to ensure, as much as possible, that it would be continue to be in the interest of both states to comply with its terms. Israel's interest in compliance is obvious; it gave up the entire Sinai region, including oil fields and strategic airfields, in exchange for the peace agreement set out in the treaty.
The treaty assured Israeli freedom of navigation in the Suez Canal and the Straits of Tiran. As far as Egypt was concerned, it not only got Sinai and its oilfields back without a fight, but was guaranteed an annual US grant of 1.5 billion dollars, an open Suez Canal, and a thriving tourist industry. These elements were only possible because Egypt was at peace - albeit a cold one -with Israel.
During the negotiations of the treaty, a prime Israeli consideration was to prevent Egypt from stationing military forces anywhere near the Israel-Egyptian. If an Egyptian force would have been positioned near the border, Israel would have been faced with the dilemma of either maintaining a permanent mobilized force to counter potential threats or taking the risk of absorbing such an attack. A risk that Israel could perhaps have run during the Yom Kippur war when the border was on the Suez Canal, but one that was unfeasible when the border was to be a mere 70 kilometers away from Tel Aviv.
Limiting Egyptian forces in Sinai was thus a vital element of the treaty as far as Israel was concerned. However, the treaty respected Egyptian national pride and did not determine that Sinai was to be demilitarized, but rather set out a detailed mutual limitation of forces. Israel agreed to a limitation of its forces to a narrow strip of land on the Israeli side of the boundary. A multi-national force was set up by the United States to supervise the limitation on either side, and to act as a tripwire should there be a violation of the military terms of the agreement.
In accordance with the treaty, Egypt is entitled to keep a sizeable force in Sinai, consisting of an infantry division with three mechanized brigades and one armored brigade, but the force is not to be deployed close to the border with Israel. On the area adjacent to the border, Egypt is entitled to station only "civil police armed with light weapons." There is no limitation on the number of policemen and Israel was perfectly aware that there is no way to determine whether such personnel are in fact "civil police." The decisive factor for Israel was that any number of "police" with light weapons is not a force with offensive capability. Therefore Israel's recent acquiescence in allowing the Egyptian army to station two battalions of infantry in eastern Sinai has no military significance for Israel.
Egypt has strong national reasons for continuing to comply with its peace treaty with Israel. Egypt was the first Arab state to sign an armistice agreement with Israel which was followed by similar agreements with other Arab states. Egypt was also the first Arab state to sign a peace treaty with Israel, followed by Jordan. Subsequently all Arab states and indeed, the Palestinians, have accepted the principle that conflicts will be resolved only by the signing of peace treaties.
The Egyptian army is equipped with US armaments financed by American military aid, one that is contingent on the peace treaty. Tourism, international trade and the use of the Suez Canal could all be gravely affected by violations of the peace treaty. A violation of the limitation of forces in Sinai would entail a frontal clash with the United States. But of course, in the Middle East one cannot always assume that states will act rationally. To act rationally, a future Egyptian government must realize that it is very much in the country’s best interests to continue to comply with the terms of the 1979 peace treaty.
The writer teaches international law at Hebrew University, and is a former legal adviser to the Foreign Ministry.