Our World: The legacy of a teetering peace

As Israel moves into the uncharted territory of managing its relations with the post-Mubarak Egypt, it is imperative that our leaders understand the lessons of the past.

Egypt protestsTahrir with flags  311 (photo credit: AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
Egypt protestsTahrir with flags 311
(photo credit: AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
One of the first casualties of the Egyptian revolution may very well be Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel. The Egyptian public’s overwhelming animus towards Jews renders it politically impossible for any Egyptian leader to come out in support of the treaty.
Over the weekend, the junta now ruling Egypt refused to explicitly commit itself to maintaining the treaty. Instead, under intense American pressure they sufficed with stating that they would maintain all of Egypt’s international obligations. According to news reports, the generals themselves are split in their positions on Israel. One group supports maintaining the treaty. The other supports its abrogation.
Ayman Nour, the head of the oppositionist Ghad Party and the man heralded as the liberal democratic alternative to Mubarak by Washington neo-conservatives has called for the peace treaty to be abrogated. In an interview with an Egyptian radio station he said, “The Camp David Accords are finished. Egypt has to at least conduct negotiations over conditions of the agreement.”
The Muslim Brotherhood has been outspoken in its call to end the treaty since it was signed 32 years ago.
Whatever ends up happening, it is clear that Israel is entering a new era in its relations with Egypt. And before we can begin contending with its challenges, we must first consider the legacy of the peace treaty that then prime minister Menachem Begin signed with then Egyptian president Anwar Sadat on March 26, 1979.
What was the nature of Israel’s agreement with Egypt? What was its impact on Israel’s strategic vision? What were the strategic assumptions that formed the basis of its component parts? How did all of these issues impact Israel’s perception of the longterm prospects for its relations with Egypt? WHEN BEGIN and Sadat signed the peace treaty, their act was the culmination of 15 months of negotiations catalyzed by Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem and his speech before the Knesset in November 1977.
Sadat’s visit to Israel’s capital was an extraordinary gesture. Here was the man who just four years earlier had waged an unprovoked, brutal war of aggression against Israel that placed the country in mortal danger and killed some 2,600 of its finest sons.
Here was the leader of the country that had fought five unprovoked wars of aggression against Israel in 29 years.
And yet suddenly, here was this man, Israel’s greatest foe standing before the Knesset and declaring that he was not seeking a ceasefire, but peace. As he put it, “I have not come to you to seek a partial peace, namely to terminate the state of belligerency at this stage...
I have come to you so that together we might build a durable peace based on justice, to avoid the shedding of one single drop of blood from an Arab or an Israeli.”
The effect of Sadat’s visit on the Israeli psyche generally and on Begin’s mindset in particular was profound.
A new book of the two leaders’ correspondence, Peace in the Making: The Menachem Begin-Anwar Sadat Personal Correspondence edited by Harry Hurwitz and Yisrael Medad of the Begin Heritage Center presents readers with a portrait of the Israeli leader enthralled with the belief that he and Sadat were embarking their nations on the road to a peaceful future.
But it was not to be. Whether Sadat was purposely deceptive or whether he was simply blocked from implementing his vision of peace by an assassin’s bullet in 1981 is unclear. True, he committed Egypt to peace. The peace treaty contains an entire annex devoted to specific commitments to cultivate every sort of cultural, social and economic tie imaginable.
But both Sadat and his successor Mubarak breached every one of them.
As the intervening 32 years since the treaty was signed have shown, in essence, the deal was nothing more than a ceasefire. Israel surrendered the entire Sinai Peninsula to Egypt and in exchange, Egypt has not staged a military attack against Israel from its territory.
The peace treaty’s critics maintain that the price Israel paid was too high and so the treaty was unjustified.
They also argue that Israel set a horrible precedent for future negotiations with its neighbors by ceding the entire Sinai in exchange for the treaty. Moreover, the Palestinian autonomy agreement in the treaty was a terrible deal. And it set the framework for the disastrous Oslo peace process with the Palestinian Authority 15 years later.
For their part, supporters of the treaty claim that the precedent it set was terrific for Israel. The treaty cites the borders of the Palestine Mandate as Israel’s legal borders. And since the Mandate envisioned a Jewish state on both banks of the Jordan River, at a minimum the peace treaty sets a precedent for a future annexation of the west bank of the Jordan.
Both sides of the argument are largely irrelevant.
Precedents don’t matter in politics. Interests, not precedents determine how states and non-state actors operate. As for whether or not the deal was justified given the exorbitant price, it is unclear what choice Begin had.
In 1977 Jimmy Carter was president of the United States. And he was the most hostile president Israel had faced. His negative attitude toward the Jewish state made it all but impossible for Begin to walk away from the table. When Carter’s antagonism was coupled with Sadat’s romantic pledges of everlasting peace and brotherhood, it is easy to understand why Begin agreed to overpay for a ceasefire.
WHILE BEGIN’S behavior during the negotiations is relatively easy to understand, Israel’s behavior since the peace with Egypt was signed is less comprehensible, and certainly less forgivable. Since Israel withdrew from the Sinai in 1981, it has been the state’s consistent policy to ignore Egypt’s bad faith. This 30- year refusal of Israel’s leadership to contend with the true nature of the deal this country achieved with Egypt has had a debilitating impact both on Israel’s internal strategic discourse as well as on its international behavior.
As the US-backed demonstrators in Tahrir Square gained momentum, and the prospect that Mubarak’s regime would indeed be overthrown became increasingly likely, IDF sources began noting that the IDF and the Mossad will need to build intelligence gathering capabilities towards Egypt after 30 years of neglect.
These statements make clear the debilitating impact of Israel’s self-induced strategic blindness to our neighbor in the south.
Under the ceasefire, with Israeli approval and encouragement, Egypt has built a modern, US-trained and armed military. And for 30 years, that military has been training to fight Israel.
On the other side, Israel stopped training in desert warfare and stopped gathering intelligence on the Egyptian military. As far as IDF commanders and successive defense ministers have been concerned, there was no reason to prepare for war or care about Egypt’s preparations for war because we were at peace.
On the international stage, our leadership’s refusal to acknowledge that Egypt had not abandoned its belligerent attitude against Israel was translated into an abject refusal to admit or deal with the fact that Egypt leads the international political war against Israel.
Rather than fight back when Egyptian diplomats at the UN initiate anti-Israel resolution after anti-Israel resolution, Israeli diplomats have pretended that there is no reason for concern.
THIS IS also the case regarding Egyptian anti-Semitism.
Before the peace treaty, the Foreign Ministry prepared regular reports on anti-Semitism in the Egyptian media and school system. These reports were distributed at embassies and consulates throughout the world. After the treaty was signed, the reports were filed away and never spoken of.
In his speeches, Sadat repeatedly claimed that he was channeling the hopes and beliefs of the entire Egyptian people. But the fact is that Sadat was a military dictator.
Israel failed to consider the implications of signing a deal with a military dictator on the prospects for the deal’s longevity. In an interview with Der Spiegel last week, the Muslim Brotherhood’s puppet Mohamed ElBaradei explained those implications. As he put it, Israel has “a peace treaty with Mubarak, but not one with the Egyptian people.”
The advantage of having a good relationship with a dictator is that he can deliver quickly. The disadvantage is that once he is gone no one is bound by his decisions because he doesn’t represent anyone.
There are other problems with making deals with dictators. Due to the repressive nature of authoritarian regimes, they have no mechanisms in place for peaceful changes. And yet change in dictatorships, like change everywhere else, is an historic inevitability.
In the absence of a mechanism for peaceful change, as a general rule, change in authoritarian regimes is revolutionary rather than evolutionary. The revolution in Cairo is the clearest example of this.
ANOTHER PROBLEM with the deal that Israel made with Sadat is demonstrated by the current unrest in the Sinai. In 1977 Egypt’s was the strongest regime in the region. So when Israel thought about the threat emanating from Egypt, it thought about the Egyptian army barreling toward Beersheba. That is why the Egyptian military was barred from operating in the Sinai.
The last thing on Israel’s mind in 1978 was the Beduin tribes in the Sinai. Back then Sinai’s Beduin were pro-Israel and bitterly disappointed when it withdrew. But a lot has changed since then.
Over the past 20 years or so, the power of Egypt’s central authority in its hinterlands has weakened.
The strength of the Beduin has grown. And over the past decade or so, the Beduin of Sinai, like the Beduin from Saudi Arabia to Jordan to Israel have become aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood and its al-Qaida and Hamas spinoffs. The Beduin attacks on Egyptian police and border guard installations in El-Arish and Suez over the past three weeks are an indication that the fear of a strong state, which was so central to Israel’s thinking during the peace process with Egypt, is no longer Israel’s most urgent concern.
Transnational jihadists in the Sinai are much more immediately threatening than the Egyptian military.
But the peace treaty – signed with a military dictator – provides neither Israel nor Egypt with tools to deal with this threat.
As Israel moves into the uncharted territory of managing its relations with the post-Mubarak Egypt, it is imperative that our leaders understand the lessons of the past. Fantasies are no match for reality.
Aggression must be fought, not wished away. And the world is a dynamic place. Today’s solutions will likely be irrelevant tomorrow as new challenges eclipse the current ones. Our strategies must be rational, flexible and sober-minded if we are to chart a forward course rather than be thrown asunder by the coming storm. And we must never put all our eggs in anyone’s basket.