Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty -- A Mistake?

Observing Egypt's current upheaval, reporter Ariel Kahane writing in the Hebrew daily Mekor Rishon opines: "Regardless of whether Mubarak falls or survives, whether the Islamists or the liberals take power, whether the riots die out or continue to rage, the lesson for Israel is clear: Arab regimes cannot be trusted." Kahane concludes that it is futile to pursue a modus vivendi with the Arabs based on Israeli territorial withdrawals.

Is he right? Should the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, signed in Washington by Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat on March 26, 1979 -- sixteen months after Sadat's extraordinary visit to Jerusalem -- be construed as a mistake?

On the eve of its signing, only two members of Begin's Likud-led cabinet, Haim Landau (1916-1981), an underground comrade of the premier's, and Ariel Sharon opposed the treaty. In a subsequent Knesset vote, Speaker Yitzhak Shamir, another Likud stalwart, abstained. These hard-liners would have preferred "peace for peace" and worried – it turns out presciently – that trading land would set a precedent in regards to the strategic Jewish heartland of Judea and Samaria (the West Bank).

In any event, their objections seemed besides the point as Israel's border with Egypt was opened, direct air-links between Tel Aviv and Cairo established and Begin left to tour the pyramids. Still, in October 1979 dissident members of his Likud, Geʾula Cohen and Moshe Shamir broke away to establish the Techiya or Renaissance party.

These secular hawks, bolstered by the theoretician Shmuel Katz (1914-2008), who in 1978 had quit the cabinet largely over Begin's peace policies, championed the Land of Israel ideology of Gush Emunim, the mostly Orthodox-led West Bank settlement movement. Techiya won three seats in the July 1981 elections and in 1982 vociferously opposed turning over the northern Sinai settlement of Yamit to Egyptian sovereignty. The party briefly realigned with Likud, went on to win five seats in the 1984 elections, before being supplanted in 1992 by a like-minded secular party, Tzomet.

As the fate of Hosni Mubarak's regime hung in the balance, came the news that Herb Zweibon, age 84, Katz's leading American disciple who had led opposition to the Egypt-Israel treaty in the US had died. Now, the old arguments raised by the Katz-Zweibon-Techiya camp against trading land for peace seem to have gained added resonance.

In truth, Israeli officials had few illusions about the nature of peace with Egypt, especially after Sadat's assassination and Mubarak's ascendency. He in effect gave Israel an ultimatum: Make "peace" on Palestinian terms or live with an Egyptian cold peace. Though wary of Egypt's profligate military build-up (fueled partly by U.S. aid), war games that could only have been intended against Israel, Mubarak’s debilitating intrigues against Israel at the United Nations, his duplicitous campaigning against Israel’s nuclear capacity, and his unwillingness or inability to stop the arms smuggling into Hamas-ruled Gaza, Israeli policymakers nevertheless preferred the cold peace to capitulation on the Palestinian front.

No wonder. For the past 30 years Egypt had been neutralized as a confrontation state. While Israel defended itself against two violent Palestinian uprisings, two Lebanon wars, against Hamas's aggression from Gaza and Iran's drive for the atomic bomb, Jerusalem did not have to divert resources to the southern front. To be sure there were also diplomatic and economic positives to the relationship, one being that fact that forty percent of the natural gas used by Israel is imported from Egypt.

Israelis are more anxious than most about Mubarak's fate. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has reportedly instructed the country's emissaries to make the case that while democratic change in Egypt is desirable violent revolutionary mayhem undermines the security of the region. Maintaining the peace – with all its flaws – between Israel and Egypt is Jerusalem's paramount goal. As President Shimon Peres forthrightly put it, having a fanatic Islamist regime in Egypt would not be better than the current lack of democracy.

In his previous incarnation, Peres had proclaimed a new Middle East modeled after Scandinavia. And Israeli doves, including late-in-life converts such as Ehud Olmert, not to mention an assortment of Palestinian leaders and European diplomats have preached that "peace brings security." Clearly, events in Egypt show this is not the case.

Providentially, Begin's treaty with Egypt was emphatically anchored in the strategic depth and demilitarization of the Sinai Peninsula, not in Egypt's hoped for durable good intentions. It was designed for the possibility "a new king would arise in Egypt who knew not Begin."

No matter who will rule Egypt – Mubarak until new elections, Omar Suleiman, Mohamed ElBarade or, perish the thought, the benighted Muslim Brotherhood, the treaty with Egypt was designed precisely for worst case scenarios.

So the lesson is not that Israeli leaders should abandon the possibility of reaching an accommodation with the Palestinians or Syrians. Instead, it is that the cornerstones of any deal needs to take into account the possibility that their successors might reject peace with Israel.

For now, Mahmoud Abbas's intransigence along with the fractious nature of Palestinian politics and Syria's Bashar Assad's fidelity to the Iranian-led axis mean that Israel has no genuine peace partner. Yet the Egypt-Israel treaty, providing demilitarization, strategic depth, and early warning plus verification procedures remains the template for future accords.

That Arab commitments to peace could be rickety was hardly lost on Begin. It has, however, been blatantly, serially, and irresponsibly disregarded by critics of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Bar-Ilan peace proposal which emphasized precisely the security parameters essential for peace. As a result, too little serious thinking has been devoted to the complex security arrangements Israel will need in the West Bank and on the Golan should genuine Arab peace partners emerge Sadat-like.

--Feb 1

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