Kurtzer: Egypt-Israel accord worked because Sadat understood Israel

Kurtzer said that while Sadat said from the beginning that he would not relinquish “one inch of Egyptian territory,” he understood Israel's concerns must be taken into account.

Sadat chatting with foreign minister Moshe Dayan during a dinner at the King David Hotel (photo credit: YAACOV SAAR/GPO)
Sadat chatting with foreign minister Moshe Dayan during a dinner at the King David Hotel
(photo credit: YAACOV SAAR/GPO)
The security provisions of the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty are its most important elements and a key to ensuring the accord’s success, former US ambassador to Israel and Egypt Dan Kurtzer told The Jerusalem Post this week.
Kurtzer – who will be one of the participants in a Truman Institute Conference at Hebrew University on Monday to mark 40 years of the Israel-Egypt peace agreement – said that Egyptian president Anwar Sadat understood from the beginning that if Israel was to be induced to take a security risk in relinquishing the strategic depth of the Sinai, it had to be assured that its security would not be jeopardized.
Therefore, Kurtzer said, Sadat was willing to give up a certain amount of sovereignty in Sinai by agreeing to the agreement’s provisions that limited the troops and weaponry that Egypt could move into the region.
Former US ambassador to Israel and Egypt Dan Kurtzer / JON ROEMERFormer US ambassador to Israel and Egypt Dan Kurtzer / JON ROEMER
March 26 marks the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in 1979. Some four months later, Kurtzer arrived at the US Embassy in Cairo as a junior diplomat who was involved in the implementation of the accord and in the Palestinian autonomy talks that were part of it. He was to return to Cairo as US ambassador in 1997, and then as ambassador to Israel in 2001.
“If you look at the treaty, there are three zones – A, B and C – and Egypt is not permitted to send its forces into zones closest to the Israeli border... [it] has limitations on what it can do in the other two zones, including not only the number of forces but also the type of weaponry and quality of installations,” he explained.
Kurtzer said that while Sadat said from the beginning that he would not relinquish “one inch of Egyptian territory,” he understood that “he would have to give up a certain amount of Egypt’s sovereignty in Sinai to meet Israel’s [security] requirements.”
IF THE security provisions of the agreement – including US intelligence information on troop movements given to both sides and its establishment of the Multinational Force & Observers in Sinai – were the strengths of the agreement, its weakness was that “it ended up being strictly a bilateral treaty.”
The Palestinians, Kurtzer said, missed a good opportunity by not being willing to take part in the autonomy talks, and the Arab states – “in shock over what Egypt had done” – boycotted Egypt as a result of the accord. As a result, he said, the treaty “did not have the regional impact that would have been really nice.”
Kurtzer argued that had the Palestinians entered into the autonomy talks that were part of the agreement, issues discussed – and not resolved – years later during the Oslo process would have been negotiated earlier, when it may have been easier to come to an agreement.
First of all, said Kurtzer – a longtime harsh critic of the settlement enterprise – “there were fewer settlements in 1979 or 1982.”
Second, he said, “there was an excitement factor that was present in ’79 that could have been taken advantage of.”
Had the Palestinians joined the talks at the time, he said, the rest of the Arab world would also likely have joined in, something that did not happen until they were pushed to do so by US secretary of state James Baker as part of the Madrid process in the early 1990s.
“You know, we talk a lot today about the Arab world getting close to Israel. Well, we did that in the multilateral talks in the ’90s,” he said of the Madrid talks.
“Imagine if we had been able to do that in 1979 or 1980, with the Palestinians in the negotiations and the Arab world involved. We could have been way ahead of the game, with the situation on the ground not as complex as it has become since, with the growth of the settlements.”
ASKED WHAT lessons could be learned from the Israeli-Egyptian peace deal, Kurtzer said that “the most important lesson has to do with leadership.”
“You had three leaders all committed to making it work,” he said. “You had an Egyptian leader ready to buck the tide of previous Egyptian policy, you had an Israeli leader [Menachem Begin] ready to buck the tides of Israeli policy and his own ideology in some respects, and you had an American president [Jimmy Carter] who was ready to jump in and focus a great deal of attention on it.”
Kurtzer maintained that “you haven’t really had that type of combination since,” and that by 1982, with Sadat assassinated a year earlier, Carter out of office and Begin in failing health, that unique combination had disappeared.
“Leadership makes a tremendous difference, and having these three come together at that moment tells you that if you can get that moment again – repeat that moment where you get real leaders who understand that peace is not made by winning 100% of what they want, but by figuring out what they need, and how the other side can meet its requirements – then you can at least hope for a peace process. Without it, we have been fumbling around for the last 25 years.”
Kurtzer said that both Begin and Sadat made a “strategic decision” toward peace, “and both were serious enough and mature enough to understand that once you make a strategic decision, you have to be willing to live through the setbacks and spoilers and the opponents, and see it through to the conclusion.”
And, he noted, they both did.