Peace with Cairo: 35 years of hopes, lost opportunities – and an uncertain future

Should Sisi be elected as is generally assumed, he will have to decide whether to go along with the cold peace or to take the bold decision to promote cooperation with Israel for the greater benefit of both countries.

Sadat, Carter, Begin, in 1979 after signing of peace treaty. (photo credit: TAL SHABTAI/GPO)
Sadat, Carter, Begin, in 1979 after signing of peace treaty.
(photo credit: TAL SHABTAI/GPO)
The peace treaty between Israel and Egypt turned 35 last month.
On the one hand it has weathered a succession of crises, on the other it never brought about the hoped for development in the relations between the two countries, let alone between Israel and the Arab world. In fact it led to Egypt being expelled from the Arab League, which transferred its seat from Cairo to Tunis.
The Egyptian establishment did not embrace the peace with open arms: then-foreign minister Ismail Fahmy – coincidentally the father of today’s foreign minister Nabil Fahmy – resigned in protest. And the people of Egypt never warmed to their Israeli neighbors. Relations were carried out at the governmental level. During his long rule, president Hosni Mubarak never tried to overcome the psychological, cultural and religious obstacles blocking the path to closer contacts.
And yet economic, cultural and scientific cooperation would have ensured stability in the region as well as progress and better living conditions; it would have been a magnet for foreign investments and technology to the great benefit of both countries. It might ultimately have brought other Arab countries to change their minds about Israel. Judging from recently published documents regarding the negotiations between Egyptians and Israelis in the years 1977-1979, this is precisely what president Anwar Sadat intended. “We have to find ways to show that we are more than good friends; our two peoples and our two religions have much in common,” he is quoted as saying.
Mubarak, who became president after having seen Sadat assassinated in October 1981, never tried to do more than “keep the peace as it was” – promoting relations with the United States while limiting contacts with Israel, leading to what became known as “the cold peace.” He was not in favor of large-scale economic and industrial cooperation but did let two major projects go through: the construction of an oil refinery in Alexandria and supplying natural gas to Israel. However important these two projects, conducted jointly by Egyptian and Israeli companies, were, they had nothing to do with the everyday life of the Egyptians and did not contribute to normalization between the countries.
This could be the reason they no longer exist. The refinery was sold to Kuwaiti interests; the gas supply was halted after the Sinai pipeline was blown up 14 times after the fall of Mubarak, while the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces vainly attempted to prevent the attacks. By that time supplying gas to Israel was seen by many as some form of the hated normalization, with Egypt being better off without it.
Mubarak’s main preoccupation had been to restore ties with the Arab League – and not to pursue Sadat’s vision, which might have led the League to be the one to ask Egypt to come back. The League did eventually let it back into the fold in 1989, having been convinced that peace with Israel was being kept to a minimum.
Mubarak could boast that Egypt had “resumed its rightful place in the Arab world” – but it did nothing for the economic and social development of the country. Ultimately the lack of development was to bring him down after 30 years of a regime which had shown itself as barren as it had been hitherto stable.
The peace did have one outstanding success – in the field of agriculture. Thanks to the determination of Yusef Wali, a devout Muslim who was minister of agriculture and who believed in rapprochement between the two religions, there was unprecedented cooperation with Israel in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Israel let Egypt benefit from its state of the art techniques in drip irrigation and growing fruit and vegetables on desert soils. Experts were dispatched to Egypt, model farms set up and thousands of young Egyptians went to Kibbutz Bror Hayil, near Sderot, to learn advanced agricultural techniques. The result was nothing short of a revolution.
Egypt became almost self-sufficient in fruits and vegetables.
Yet this all important cooperation was done with the utmost discretion, not to say secrecy, because it contradicted the policy of the cold peace and was bitterly opposed by the Wafd party, the Left party (Tagammu), the Islamic establishment and the Muslim Brotherhood. They all accused Israel of “poisoning Egyptian soil through drip irrigation” and selling contaminated fertilizers to Egyptian farmers.
Following the revolution that overthrew Mubarak, Wali, was jailed for alleged corruption.
Nevertheless this cold peace held fast through two intifadas, two wars in Lebanon and two major conflicts with Hamas.
Egypt recalled its ambassadors three times to mark its displeasure but did not go any further.
Though Cairo is committed to the Palestinian cause, it understands that the Palestinian conflict has embroiled the country in five wars with Israel with no discernible results. The fact is that even the Muslim Brothers did not try during their short rule to break off diplomatic ties with Israel; they even send a new ambassador to Tel Aviv (he was recalled during the IDF’s Pillar of Defense operation against Hamas in Gaza). This being said, they would probably have recalled the ambassador once they had established the Islamic dictatorship they were diligently fostering.
What will happen now? Egyptians are tired of chaos after three years of mass demonstrations, an economy spiraling out of control and growing insecurity. A majority of them are putting their hopes in Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the new strongman of Egypt and the leading candidate in the presidential elections to be held at the end of May. Sisi knows, however, that their trust is not limitless. Should he fail to redress the economy within a year or two, or try to establish a new military dictatorship, he could very well find himself in the same situation as Hosni Mubarak and Mohamed Morsi.
Israel is not an issue right now. The cold peace goes on.
However, both countries are cooperating in the fight against Islamic terror, particularly in the Sinai Peninsula, and against Hamas attempts at destabilizing Egypt. They exchange vital intelligence; Israel has let Egypt move more troops into Sinai than the peace treaty allowed for.
Should Sisi be elected as is generally assumed, he will have to decide whether to go along with the cold peace as before or to take the difficult and bold decision to promote cooperation with Israel for the greater benefit of both countries.
The writer, a fellow of The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is a former ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden.