Sheldon Kirshner

Israel’s Peace Treaty With Egypt 45 Years On

It was a diplomatic earthquake that shook the Middle East to its foundations.

Forty-five years ago, Israel and Egypt transcended decades of mutual animosity and bloodshed and signed a peace treaty that endures to this day, despite the constant tumult in the region.

This landmark agreement, the first between Israel and an Arab state, was sealed in Washington, D.C. on March 26, 1979 by Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and U.S. President Jimmy Carter.

While this government-to-government pact has elicited meager grassroots approval, it has survived a multitude of serious challenges ranging from regional wars and political upheavals to the recall of Egyptian and Israeli ambassadors.

It was discussed by four panelists in a webinar on March 26 hosted by the Middle East Institute, a non-partisan think tank in Washington.

The moderator, Nimrod Goren, is a senior fellow of Israel studies at the institute, as well as the president of the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies.

Two of the panelists were Hesham Youssef, a former high-ranking diplomat with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Egypt, and Jeremy Isaacharoff, Israel’s ambassador to Germany from 2017 to 2021 and the former vice-director general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

They were joined by Mirette Mabrouk, a senior fellow and founding director of the institute’s Egypt Studies program and previously the deputy director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council, and by Ksenia Svetlova, a Russian-born Israeli journalist, former member of the Knesset, and a policy fellow at the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies.

Goren introduced the topic by saying that the treaty was a diplomatic breakthrough that paved the way for further agreements such as Israel’s rapprochement with Jordan in 1994. It emerged after Israel and Egypt fought five wars — the 1948 War of Independence, the 1956 Sinai campaign, the 1967 Six Day War, the 1967-1970 War of Attrition, and the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

Alluding to this theme, Goren said that wars can lead to peace. He was referring implicitly to the Yom Kippur War, during which Egypt attacked Israeli forces along the Suez Canal in the Sinai Peninsula. The outcome of that three-week war prompted Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to visit Jerusalem in 1977, a trip that produced the treaty two years later.

Describing the treaty as a “milestone in the region,” he said it was strategically important to both Egypt and Israel. Without it, neither the Israel-Jordan peace accord nor the 2020 Abraham accords would have been possible, he claimed.

Sadat paid a heavy price for it, with a succession of Arab states denouncing the Egyptian government and severing diplomatic relations with Egypt, he noted.

Youssef went on to say that Sadat, in reconciling with Israel, hoped to resolve the Palestinian issue through a two-state solution. He failed. His successors, Hosni Mubarak and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, have hewed to the same policy.

Over the course of four decades, problems and challenges have arisen in maintaining and preserving the treaty, but they have been dealt with diplomatically. Israel and Egypt have cooperated on the military level to combat the Egyptian branch of Islamic State in the Sinai, he said.

He warned that an Israeli invasion of Rafah, Hamas’ last urban stronghold in the Gaza Strip, would most likely be a violation of the treaty.

Praising Sadat’s decision to forge peace with Israel as “an exceptional example of leadership,” he said that Israel’s commitment to the treaty is ironclad.

In a succinct and sober appraisal of it, he called it a “cold peace” punctuated by “warm moments.” He acknowledged that an Israeli military operation Rafah could have an adverse effect on Israel’s bilateral relations with Egypt.

Isaacharoff said that Egypt has an important role to play in the release of Israeli hostages in Hamas’ hands and in the revitalization of the Palestinian Authority, which may yet govern Gaza again.

He warned that Hamas could well win the war unless Israel agrees to a “political horizon” for the Palestinians. In the meantime, a “pathway” to a two-state solution should be pursued, he said, concurring with U.S. policy but disagreeing with the position of Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israel cannot go back to the status quo ante after Hamas’ attack on October 7, he declared.

Mabrouk said that Egypt’s economic relationship with Israel has been steady, citing an annual volume of trade of about $1.5 billion most recently. These relations are underpinned by Israeli natural gas exports to Egypt and the existence of Egyptian factories in special Qualified Industrial Zones attached to Israeli production lines.

An expansion of trade, however, may well be impossible unless the Palestinian question is constructively addressed by Israel. Egypt cannot afford to ignore pro-Palestinian feelings among the masses of Egyptians, she said, noting that a long-range ceasefire to end the war is necessary and that a two-state solution is “the only way forward.”

Nor will Egypt be complicit in an Israeli reoccupation of Gaza, she warned.

Svetlova said the treaty will remain limited in scope unless the Palestinian problem is finally tackled. “We need a political framework for all this to happen,” she said, warning that the status quo “will not get us anywhere.”

Alluding to the “cold” quality of Israel’s overall ties with Egypt, she said that the Egyptian media hardly ever refers to it, underscoring the chilly nature of Israel’s relations with Egypt.

About the Author
Sheldon Kirshner is a journalist in Toronto. He writes at his online journal,