Egypt-Israel: An unfinished peace

Even if mostly limited, treaty resulted in significant regional changes.

Sadat Begin 224.88 (photo credit: Archive photo)
Sadat Begin 224.88
(photo credit: Archive photo)
On March 26, 1979, Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty on the White House lawn. It was an intensely emotional moment. For the Israelis, the hope was born that this first step - making peace with the greatest of Arab countries - would help build a bridge to the rest of the Middle East. They found it difficult to understand the lack of enthusiasm, if not downright opposition, demonstrated by many countries. The Arab world as a whole denounced the Egyptian initiative, which breached its united front against Israel and was seen as weakening the Palestinian struggle in which Egypt was the strongest player due to its military might. Egypt was expelled from the Arab League and the headquarters of that organization was moved to Tunis. Even the European Community (today the European Union) refrained from supporting the treaty. It did praise Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat for their efforts to achieve peace, but stressed that the treaty was incomplete because it did not provide for a Palestinian state. The United Nations evinced the same lack of support. The signatories to the treaty and the United States, which had sponsored it, had expected that the world organization would set up a peacekeeping force to monitor the demilitarization of the Sinai area. It did not happen. The Soviet Union threatened to veto any such proposal at the Security Council, and it was taken off the UN agenda. It has to be remembered that the creation of a peace force which would supervise the demilitarization of the Sinai after Israel returned it to Egypt was at the core of the treaty. Egypt was undertaking to put an end to the state of war and establish peaceful relations in all fields of life; however Israel wanted to get solid guarantees that Sinai would no longer serve as a base of attack against its heavily populated areas. Consequently a detailed military agreement had been reached as part of the peace treaty: Egypt could keep limited military forces in the peninsula, but only police forces along the border, and an international force would supervise this essential proviso. The UN having declined to set it up, the US stepped in and led to the creation of a special unit, the Multinational Force and Observers, whose mandate was to monitor the implementation of the military agreement. Eleven countries agreed to take part in it, though it was the United States which supplied 90 percent of the personnel. The observers of the Multinational Force also monitor a narrow strip on the Israeli side where no tanks or heavy weapons are allowed. Because of the situation in Gaza, the two countries have mutually accepted minor temporary derogations to the military treaty, such as allowing 700 Egyptian army personnel along the Philadelphi corridor, but have refrained from making changes in the treaty itself. It seems that the dispositions of the military treaty have been faithfully observed by Egypt, and this is one of the few rays of light in the overall relationship. WITHIN EGYPT the peace agreement met with a variety of reactions, and eventually turned into what is generally seen as a "cold peace." And yet in the beginning it was greeted enthusiastically by the masses, who cheered Sadat upon his return from his historic visit to Jerusalem in 1977. An estimated two million people waited on the route taken by his motorcade and cheered while yelling "Long live peace! Long live Sadat!" An Egyptian sociologist, then known for his anti-Israel position, once told me that he had been suspicious of such popular fervor, and believed it had been staged by the Mukhabarat, the Egyptian security service. He decided to conduct an opinion poll - one of the first ever in Egypt - to check the situation on the ground. To his great surprise the survey showed that over 60% supported Sadat. Not convinced, he did another survey which brought the same results. This led him to change his opinion and support the peace - a position he holds to this day. There is no doubt but that Egypt had had enough war. Thousands of Egyptian soldiers perished during the five armed confrontations with Israel with no tangible results and no end of the conflict in sight. Its economy had suffered and the Soviet Union, which was its main supplier of weapons, tended to treat it as a subservient nation. This led Sadat to change tack. He got rid of the Russians and turned to the US, knowing fully well that the path to Washington was through a peace treaty with Israel. The Yom Kippur War had taken Israel completely by surprise and had provided the Egyptian army with a number of military successes which were seen as restoring pride to Egypt and making it possible for that country to enter negotiations. The people of Egypt rejoiced in the return of lost lands, and even more at the prospect of a rapid improvement in their standard of living. The US was granting Egypt a hefty $2 billion a year for military and civilian purposes, and the threat of war had receded. The assassination of Sadat to a great extent ended those expectations. Opposition to the peace became more vocal. It included intellectual circles and media brought up on the pan-Arabism of Gamal Abdel Nasser but also leftist parties and the Muslim establishment, as well as the Muslim Brothers. Elected president, Hosni Mubarak was not ready to tackle those forces, though he had the means to do so. He chose to settle for a limited peace, the cold peace, while launching an all-out effort to restore Egypt to its former position at the center of the Arab world. In this he was successful: Egypt was readmitted to the Arab League in 1989, and the headquarters of that organization left Tunis to return to Cairo. MUBARAK MADE NO EFFORT, however, to curb the growing swell of attacks against Israel and the Jews which become a staple of the Egyptian media. In spite of the peace and the lack of any direct threat, Mubarak continued to strengthen the army. In fact, thanks to American military assistance, the Egyptian army is now the largest Arab army in the region. Over the years, Egypt's economy failed to progress, and a disillusioned people lost faith in the peace. And yet Israel did all that was in its power to promote normalization between the two countries, still hoping to achieve better understanding and not just a cold peace limited to contacts between governments and minimal commercial links. In 1981, Sadat asked then-agriculture minister Ariel Sharon for help in developing his country's agriculture, which was unable to produce enough food for the growing population. Israel sent experts in a variety of fields, from drip irrigation to the supply of seeds adapted to the light desert soil. This was expected to lead to increased yields and crops in areas outside the heavily populated delta lands. Indeed, within a few years remarkable results were achieved. Thanks to Israeli help and know-how, Egypt now meets most of its own needs in fruits and vegetables, and even exports some produce to Europe. Unfortunately, the average Egyptian is not aware of this fact, and the opposition in Egypt repeatedly accuses Israel of having "poisoned" Egyptian soil. EFFORTS TO PROMOTE cooperation in the fields of tourism, industry and commerce remain limited because the government of Egypt does not want them to go beyond the strict minimumAll contactsin the cultural and scientific spheres are banned and the professional associations of the Egyptian elite, such as engineers, doctors and writers, boycott Israel and forbid their members to have any contact with it. The sale of oil and gas to Israel is encountering growing opposition. Visits to Israel are actively discouraged and a special permit is needed. A case in point is that of the Qualified Industrial Zones (QIZ) agreement according to which goods produced in special zones can be exported to the US with no customs tax within the framework of the trade agreement between Israel and the US, provided a small percentage of the process is conducted in Israel. It was Egypt which asked for this agreement, since its textile industry was on the brink of ruin. It needed an injection of technology and open markets to survive. Exports from the QIZ have added a hefty $800 million to Egypt. This was instrumental in the liberation of Azzam Azzam, but did not lead to any improvement in the overall situation. PEACE HAS ENDURED, though. Even if mostly limited to contacts between governments, it has nevertheless facilitated significant changes in the region. It opened the door to the Madrid Conference in 1991, where the subject of a comprehensive peace with all Arab states, including the PLO, was put squarely on the table. It also led to tentative economic cooperation with a number of Arab states. The Oslo Accords and peace with Jordan probably would not have been possible without it. What is more, over the years both countries have concluded that they do have common vital interests, making some form of cooperation a must. First and foremost is the Palestinian question. It is doubtful if both countries have the same solution in mind, since Egypt fully supports the Palestinian position. However it feels the need to stabilize the situation and contain terror and understands that there will have to be a compromise. This is why Egypt is keen to reconcile Hamas and Fatah, and why it is spending so much energy brokering the Gilad Schalit issue. But Egypt has its red lines. It is not ready to kill Palestinians to prevent smuggling and protect Israeli interests in Gaza. NO LESS IMPORTANT for Egypt is the growing threat of international terror from jihadist groups such as al-Qaida, and the Iranian attempts at subversion through Hizbullah and Hamas. To defend itself against these threats, Egypt tends to coordinate its steps with pragmatic Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, but needs the help and assistance of the US and the quiet understanding, with a measure of coordination, of Israel. Both Israel and the US have a vital interest in the continued stability of the Egyptian regime and cooperation with it. Thus Egypt has steadfastly refused to be drawn back into the conflict between the Palestinians and Israel. Mubarak turned down the opposition's calls to send the Egyptian army to fight Israel during the intifada, the war in Lebanon and the recent war in Gaza. The old leader, who is deeply committed to the stability of his country, has repeatedly said his country knows only too well the price of war and has no wish to experience it again. Let whoever wants to fight Israel do so, he says; Egypt won't. In this he echoes Sadat's exhortation: "No more war, no more bloodshed." From time to time the media in Israel turn their attention to the state of the peace with Egypt. The refusal of the Egyptian ambassador to attend the opening of the exhibition on Egypt in the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem last Sunday is a reminder that the policy of cold peace is still very much alive. With the Mubarak era drawing to its close, there is a lot of apprehension concerning the future. This is only to be expected. The cold peace and escalating incitement against Israel and the Jews are not conducive to optimism. And yet peace has endured for 30 years, surviving acute crises. Does this mean it will go on? Is the will for peace going to be stronger than the vociferous opposition in Egypt? We cannot and should not be blind to the unpredictability which is one of the characteristics of the region, yet there are grounds for cautious optimism. The writer, a former ambassador to Egypt, is a fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.