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Remembering the Egypt-Israel peace treaty

Egypt was the first Arab country to normalise relations with Israel

In the aftermath of the Camp David accords in 1979, Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty on the White House lawn, marking an end to decades of hostility between the two neighbours since Israel’s establishment in 1948. Forty years later, the treaty is still considered integral to Israel’s security, despite undermining the Palestinian struggle and overlooking the demands of the Egyptian people.

What: Egypt-Israel peace treaty

When: 26th March 1979

Where: The White House, Washington DC

What happened?

In 1977, in an unprecedented move for an Arab leader, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat visited Jerusalem seeking reconciliation after decades of conflict. The two countries had been officially at war since the establishment of Israel in 1948, and Israel had also occupied the Sinai Peninsula since the 1967 war. Sadat’s rapprochement with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin was motivated by the desire for a deal that would ensure a lasting peace.

Despite criticism from neighbouring Arab countries, in September 1978 the two leaders met again in the US for secret negotiations hosted by President Jimmy Carter at the presidential retreat, Camp David in Maryland. The first of these frameworks dealt with the Palestinian territories, stipulating that Egypt, Israel, and Jordan would agree on a method to establish an elected self-governing authority in the West Bank and Gaza and a transitional period of five years. However, the proposal was rejected by the UN for having been formulated without the involvement of the Palestinians themselves, and for not complying with the Palestinian right of return, self-determination and national independence.

A peace treaty for Egypt and Israel was also formulated during the accords; it officially normalised relations between the two countries and mandated the withdrawal of Israeli military forces from the Sinai Peninsula, which Cairo agreed to leave more or less demilitarised. The agreement also provided free passage to Israeli ships through the Suez Canal and, most notably, made Egypt the first Arab country to recognise Israel as a state.

In March 1979, Sadat and Begin met in Washington to sign the treaty officially, for which they were jointly awarded the 1978 Nobel Prize for Peace. In his speech on receiving his award, Sadat hailed the agreement as an initiative aimed at restoring peace: “Let us put an end to wars, let us reshape life on the solid basis of equity and truth. And it is this call, which reflected the will of the Egyptian people, of the great majority of the Arab and Israeli peoples, and indeed of millions of men, women, and children around the world, that you are today honouring. And these hundreds of millions will judge to what extent every responsible leader in the Middle East, has responded to the hopes of mankind.”

What happened next?

President Sadat’s efforts were controversial in the Arab World; Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat, for example, slammed the agreement, stating famously, “Let them sign what they like. False peace will not last.”

The deal was also viewed negatively by the region’s people, who considered Sadat as placing Egypt’s national interests over those of former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arab vision. Later that year, Egypt was suspended from the Arab League, and the organisation’s headquarters was moved from Cairo to Tunis.

As part of the agreement, the US began its policy of providing economic and military aid to Egypt, second only to Israel. From the Camp David peace accords in 1978 until 2000, Washington has subsidised Egypt’s armed forces with over $38 billion of aid. The country still receives around $1.3 billion from the US annually.

On 6 October 1981, Sadat was assassinated during the annual victory parade held in Cairo to celebrate Egypt’s crossing of the Suez Canal during the 1973 October War. Responsibility for the killing was claimed by the Egyptian group Islamic Jihad, which cited as a primary motivation the president’s deal with Israel, as well as the intense crackdown conducted by the government against opposition leaders.

Nevertheless, the treaty has remained unchanged in the decades since it was signed, despite brief uncertainty as to its future in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution that ousted President Hosni Mubarak. In 2012, Muslim Brotherhood leaders suggested that the treaty could be put to a referendum to allow the Egyptian people to have a say, but officials reportedly assured US diplomats that they did not intend to revoke it.

After the military coup in 2013, newly instated President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi pledged to maintain peace with Israel. Cooperation between Tel Aviv and Cairo has since strengthened, with the two nations coordinating efforts against an alleged insurgency in the Sinai. Israel has permitted Egypt to increase its troop presence in the Peninsula as its conducts a campaign reportedly against Daesh militants. The Egyptian army is accused of bombing civilian areas indiscriminately and of thousands of extrajudicial killings of residents, regardless of their affiliation.

In 2015, Egypt voted for Israel to join the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs. This was the first time that Egypt had ever voted in Israel’s favour at the United Nations.

Egypt has also joined various Gulf States in pressuring the Palestinians to accept a peace deal formulated by the Trump administration, despite the fact that it apparently rejects Palestinian statehood and the legitimate right of return for refugees, and regards Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel. Egyptian security officials regularly close the Rafah border crossing into Gaza and destroy tunnels used by smugglers to transfer basic food and medication to the besieged enclave, home to some two million Palestinians.

Today, some 82 per cent of Israelis believe that the peace treaty with Egypt remains integral to Israel’s security. It is, though, increasingly viewed as a cold peace, given the strong rejection by most Arab people of their governments’ normalisation of relations with Israel.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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