Kenneth Jacobson

Egyptian-Israeli peace remains vital for regional security

Recently, on March 26, we commemorated the 45th anniversary of the historic Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. The current turmoil in the region lends additional perspective to that unique moment in the modern history of the Middle East.

During the past few years with the signing of the Abraham Accords and the prospect of Saudi Arabia normalizing relations with Israel, these breakthroughs were often contrasted in their wholeness compared to what was often described as the cold peace Israel achieved with Egypt.

So, it was noted that, for example, with the UAE, as opposed to Egypt, Israel was already engaging in person-to-person activities, in economic cooperation, in efforts to work together to promote true acceptance one of the other. None of those things have materialized in the Egyptian-Israeli relationship all these years. Indeed, oftentimes, when Egyptian individuals or groups sought relations with their counterparts in Israel, they were met with the sharpest condemnation back home.

It is also noted that the Egyptian peace did not catalyze others in the Arab world to follow suit. Indeed, Anwar Sadat, the President of Egypt who initiated the process with Menachem Begin, was widely condemned in the Arab world for breaking the taboo that had existed from the founding of Israel of recognizing and legitimizing the Jewish state, and for going it alone without specifically addressing the Palestinian issue.

And it took another 15 years, at a very different time, post the Cold War, for another Arab leader, King Hussein of Jordan, to venture into a peace deal with Israel.

Having said all that, none of the breakthroughs that have happened since could have taken place without the initial one that many had believed would never happen. For years, it had become conventional wisdom, in certain Jewish circles and beyond, that no Arab leader would recognize Israel because Islam was fundamentally opposed to Jewish equality in the region, and Jewish sovereignty was the most significant manifestation of that equality.

Anwar Sadat’s peace made clear that things didn’t have to be this way. He saw peace with Israel as enhancing Egyptian security, of opening relations with the United States and distancing Egypt from the Soviets, and he hoped that Egypt’s economy could benefit from the absence of war and American assistance. The circle of hopelessness and bloodshed was not inevitable, and it took a combination of courageous leadership on both sides and the right circumstances for things to change.

And with all the criticisms that only a cold peace has emerged, it should not be taken for granted that through thick and thin over many years, the agreement has held up. Many crises have arisen, whether the assassination of Sadat, revolution in Egypt during the Arab spring, several wars in Lebanon, conflicts between Israel and Hamas, where things could have gone off the rails.

For Israel, that has meant when it faced other challenges in the region, and there have been many, not only did they not have to worry about Egypt joining hostile forces against Israel, but many times Israel has been able to turn to Egypt to play a mediating role.

As we look at the current chaos in the region, the criticism of Egypt back in 1979 that it was abandoning the Palestinians seems highly relevant. As Israel looks to Egypt to open up its border temporarily to take in Gazans to avoid Israeli military actions, the fact that Egypt is refusing to do so is consistent with a long history, preceding the peace treaty.

Let us not forget that Egypt took control of the Gaza Strip after Israel’s war of Independence, and maintained control there until the 1967 Six Day War. At no point did Egypt work to lead Palestinians in Gaza to some level of independence. And when they left Gaza, it was with a huge sigh of relief.

The consistent point here is that Egypt follows what it perceives to be Egyptian interests at any given time. Sometimes this works to the benefit of Egyptian-Israeli relations, other times it works against them. So too with regard to the Palestinians, though usually Egyptian rhetoric on behalf of the Palestinians far outstrips their acts on the ground, as their current border policies reflect.

All in all, as we commemorate the anniversary of the peace treaty, we need to value that moment in time, and acknowledge that difficult as things are now, and how many would like to see Egypt play a more constructive role, things would be far worse if not for March 26, 1979.

About the Author
Kenneth Jacobson is Deputy National Director of the Anti-Defamation League.
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