Above the Fray: Peace will prevail

Israel’s and Egypt’s shared regional concerns and strategic interests will preserve the treaty and shield their bilateral relations.

On Saturday, the Egyptian army issued a communiqué reassuring the people and the international community of its intention to usher in a civilian government and honor all international commitments, including the peace treaty with Israel. Although such a pronouncement provided some comfort, many Israeli officials and ordinary citizens remain alarmed, perhaps for good reason, about the breathless development of events and their mid- and long-term implications.
A careful analysis strongly suggests, however, that the military remains central to any future political development.
Gauging the support for the 1979 peace treaty, it would appear that the military will continue to steadfastly safeguard it not only because the army feels obligated, but because peace will continue to serve national strategic interests.
There are four major pillars to this argument, and together they form the basis for maintaining and even improving bilateral relations, which open up new opportunities for further advancing the peace process.
TO BETTER appreciate the Egyptian military’s commitment to the peace treaty, it should be recalled that it was Anwar Sadat who forged peace in the wake of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The ending of the war was rather unique as it was engineered by US secretary of state Henry Kissinger to allow Egypt to emerge politically triumphant by preventing the Israelis from crushing its Third Army. Kissinger argued that another defeat would only usher in the next war, and that Egypt, as the leader of the Arab world, must feel victorious and equal to come to the negotiating table.
Allowing the military to remain in the Sinai at the conclusion of the hostilities was taken by the Egyptians, as it was intended to, as a military victory which they continue to celebrate. This same peace treaty was steadfastly observed and further strengthened by Sadat’s successor Hosni Mubarak.
This suggests three important implications: the peace treaty has been forged, sustained and somewhat institutionalized by military men. There is nothing to indicate the current military leadership has any reason to downgrade, let alone abrogate it. Neither country has violated the agreement and both militaries have cooperated on a number of levels, including intelligence sharing.
Moreover, both countries have greatly benefited from the reduced military expenditure resulting from the substantial reduction in the state of readiness against one another. Finally, considering the enormous efforts it would take to get Egypt out of its current political, social and economic doldrums, it would be at best foolish to renew hostilities with a neighbor in possession of formidable conventional military machine. In fact, if anything, the current high command looks favorably at the peace treaty because it serves Egypt’s strategic regional interests.
As the military listened to the public’s demands, it realized that the focus of the young revolutionaries was on their own plight – social and political freedom, economic opportunity, better health care and education.
The revolutionaries did not seek a scapegoat for their dismal state; they did not blame Israel or the US for their country’s failures, and instead pointed the finger at their own leaders – the corruption and the stagnation from within.
Here again, unlike many other Arabs who blame Israel, in particular, for all the ills that affect their society, the Egyptians appear to appreciate that peace is positive.
Whereas Mubarak has failed the people by stifling social, economic and political developments, he has managed to ingrain the peace agreement in the national psyche. After all, the peace was forged following a “military victory,” and not a defeat.
Even the Muslim Brotherhood vowed to keep the peace treaty should it assume power. Indeed, no revolution can make social, political and economic progress by becoming hostile to its neighbors. In fact, Egypt can only benefit from the bilateral relations as it has in the past.
THE ARAB malaise is bred from within, and to change, it must also come from the strength, tenacity and will of the Egyptian people. It is in that sense that Egypt will again set an example to be emulated by the rest of the Arab states.
Both Israel and the Egyptian military share common concerns over Islamic extremism. They have cooperated in the past and will continue to collaborate.
Although the Muslim Brotherhood has professed to pursue political pluralism, both Israel and the Egyptian military remain suspicious of its ultimate intentions. Its influence on Hamas is significant, and neither Israel nor the Egyptian military sees Hamas as a legitimate interlocutor as long as it continues to reject the existence of Israel.
It should be further noted that it was the Egyptian military, just as much as the IDF, which kept tight control over the blockade of Gaza. Moreover, both militaries are concerned over the rise of Islamic extremism, which is not likely to dissipate following the Egyptian revolution. Egypt and Israel have far greater common interests than differences and the Egyptian military is keenly aware of the potential gains and losses. It would like to maintain excellent relations with the US and continue to receive the more than $1 billion in military assistance. It would be impossible to maintain should the peace treaty be undermined.
Finally, what further cements future bilateral relations is the threat of Iran.
Its growing influence in Iraq and the recent developments in Lebanon only reinforce this concern. For Egypt in particular, a nuclear Iran could overshadow its traditional leadership role in the Arab world and might even compel it to pursue its own nuclear program. Neither prospect is attractive.
Indeed, the last thing Egypt needs now is to enter into a nuclear race with Iran or continuously be threatened by Iranian surrogates. Israel, on the other hand, while enjoying its own nuclear deterrence, wishes to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons not only out of fear that it would neutralize its own weapons, but because it could prevent other Arab states, especially in the Gulf, from making peace. Thus, both countries have a very strong interest to prevent Iran from realizing its nuclear ambition.
For Egypt and Israel, teaming together on this vitally important issue is of a supreme importance to their national security. Egypt looks at Israel as the bulwark that might delay, if not stop, Iran’s nuclear adventure which adds another layer to their bilateral relationship.
The revolution is a game changer in many ways and neither Egypt nor the Middle East will be the same again. I believe that the Egyptian people will stay the course of peace because the people’s revolution is about internal social, political and economic developments; it is about being free, productive and proud citizens. Maintaining the peace, under the guidance of the military, will help the young revolutionaries focus on their holy mission and reach their destination with dignity, while fostering peace and prosperity throughout the region.
The writer is professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.