Stable but Tepid: The Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty After 40 Years

Op-eds / Israel and the Middle East

On March 26, 1979, Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty – the first between Israel and an Arab state. Many Israelis were disenchanted when the treaty did not result in normalized bilateral relations or put Israel on the path to peace with other Arab countries (except for Jordan). However, even those who were disappointed would have to admit that peace with Egypt remains stable. The importance of the agreement cannot be overstated. It penetrated the Arab wall of hostility and gave Israel legitimacy. Moreover, Egypt singled itself out by signing the agreement, thereby weakening other Arab states and preventing another all-out war. In retrospect, the agreement set the way for Arab recognition – albeit not comprehensive – of Israel. The Oslo Accords in the 1990s and the Arab Peace Initiative in 2002, therefore, continue the process that began with the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement.

Former Egyptian minister of state for foreign affairs Boutros Boutros-Ghali (later appointed UN secretary-general), coined the term “cold peace” to describe Israel-Egypt relations, a phrase that has identified the bilateral relations ever since. Others suggested the terms “negative peace” or “fragile peace.” These terms convey the idea that peace is made by governments and not by people; that the issues between the two countries have not yet been completely resolved (for example, the Palestinian issue); and that war continues to be an option, as reflected in Egyptian war plans in which Israel is seen as an enemy. Is this term still appropriate to describe the relationship between Israel and Egypt after 40 years?

An analysis of the treaty reveals that there are at least ten components that have ensured stability over the years: First and foremost, peace has never been in danger. Although Egypt has recalled its ambassador to Cairo several times during periods of crisis (such as the 1982 Lebanon War, the 2000 Al-Aqsa, or Second Intifada, etc.), it has never severed diplomatic relations, suspended or canceled peace. Even during the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood under Muhammad Morsi (2013-2012), Israel received clear signals that the agreement was not in danger.

Second, Egypt has always respected military agreements. Even when the number of Egyptian troops deployed in the Sinai violated the treaty, it was done with Israel’s permission. Third, the embassies, consulates and academic center continued to function even in periods of crisis (such as after the attack on the embassy in Cairo and its evacuation in September 2011). Fourth, Israeli ships sail through the Suez Canal. Fifth, the economic boycott of Israel was formally lifted. Sixth, Egypt is doing its best to prevent infiltrations or terrorist attacks from its territory into Israel. Seventh, between the countries, there are air, sea and land links. Eighth, there is minimal trade, which increased after the signing of the Qualified Industrial Zone in 2004. The $15 billion agreement to supply Israeli gas to Egypt over 10 years gave the commercial-economic relations a boost as well. However, the large gas reserves that Egypt recently found in its territory raises questions regarding the implementation of the agreement. In any event, Egypt recently established the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum with the participation of Israel.

Ninth, there is security and intelligence cooperation, which was strengthened after Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi rose to power in 2013. Indeed, Sisi has recently confirmed that Israel is assisting Egypt in various ways in its war against jihadist Islamic organizations in the Sinai. The two countries also maintain dialogue and coordination on Gaza and the Hamas regime. In fact, the security coordination with Israel’s security and intelligence officials can be defined as “warm”. Finally, Israel and the Jewish organizations in the US lobbied Congress to ensure the continuation of the military aid to Egypt.

In contrast, the peace agreement suffers from several basic weaknesses: First, the hostile media attacks against Israel and its policies (which is legitimate in itself) sometimes reveal an anti-Semitic tone. TV series broadcast during Ramadan often recite negative stereotypes of Jew. The state, which controls media outlets, can prevent – or reduce – the frequency of these broadcasts, but it refrains from doing so in order to allow steam to be used against Israel instead of the regime. Second, the Egyptian parliament, trade unions and academia oppose any signs of normalization with Israel. For example, MP Tawfiq Okasha was expelled from parliament after meeting with Israeli Ambassador Haim Koren. Although there is an academic center in Cairo, there is no academic cooperation between Israeli and Egyptian universities. Moreover, there are 13 departments that teach Hebrew and Judaism in Egyptian universities, but except for occasional visits to the academic center for learning purposes, there is no institutional connection.

Third, most of the intellectuals in Egypt, regardless of their political or religious affiliation, vehemently criticize Israel. Over the years, there were some courageous intellectuals – such as Lutfi al-Khuli, Ali Salem and Saad Eddin Ibrahim – who were part of the Egyptian peace movement and even visited Israel. But they were harshly criticized. Fourth, Egypt indeed allows its citizens to visit Israel, but in practice it piles up many hurdles. Citizens who want to visit Israel are required to obtain special security permission. Finally, the Egyptian educational system continues to teach content that enhances the negative image of Jews and Israelis. Although the peace treaty was introduced into textbooks – which show that Israel is formally recognized – the historical narrative does not legitimize Israel’s existence, and its citizens are generally described negatively.

This analysis shows that if we use the metaphor of temperature to evaluate peace between Israel and Egypt, in certain areas, such as security and intelligence, we have “warm” peace. But in other areas, such as media, education, academia and civil society, peace is still “cold”. On balance, peace with Egypt can be described as “tepid.” However, if peace is measured by its degree of stability, it is far from being fragile. The hostility between Egypt and Israel – which included no less than five wars – prevailed for 25 years (1948-1973), whereas peace has existed for 40 years. Moreover, an in-depth examination of Egypt’s economic and social problems, especially the problems arising from its demographic growth (Egypt has a population of almost 100 million) prevent Egypt from seriously considering a war against Israel. In this respect, peace is not only an Egyptian need, but a necessity. This is therefore a durable and stable peace, even if it is mild in terms of temperature.

What else can be done to “warm up” peace? Israel must solve the Palestinian problem (which is in its interest anyway), so that the Egyptian regime and the public will not feel guilty about abandoning the Palestinian cause. Egypt, for its part, should deepen the foundations of peace through the media and education. Both countries should make increased use of their foreign offices – and not rely on the security and intelligence apparatuses – to deepen cooperation on the diplomatic and civic levels as well. The chances that such things will happen are not great, but it remains to be hoped that by the 50th anniversary of the peace agreement, we will see further improvement in Israeli-Egyptian relations.

Prof. Elie Podeh is a Board Member at the Mitvim Institute. He teaches Middle Eastern studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

(originally published in the Jerusalem Post)

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