Forty years after Camp David, Egypt and Israel endure ‘cold peace’

Israel is a hot topic for Egyptian talk shows, guaranteed to stoke the kind of high feelings seen in debates on gay rights.
Sunday 23/09/2018
Israeli flag (L) and Egypt’s national flag flutter at the Nitzana crossing along Israel’s border with Egypt’s Sinai peninsula. (Reuters)
Uneasy peace. Israeli flag (L) and Egypt’s national flag flutter at the Nitzana crossing along Israel’s border with Egypt’s Sinai peninsula. (Reuters)

CAIRO - Forty years after signing the Camp David Accords, Egypt and Israel live in uneasy peace, as cool diplomatic ties have failed to unfreeze other relations.

“There is still a psychological barrier between us and the Israeli people,” said former Egyptian lawmaker Mohammed Anwar Sadat, nephew of former President Anwar Sadat.

Mohammed Sadat proudly keeps a photo of his late uncle in his Cairo office.

Anwar Sadat risked everything in making peace with Israel at the US presidential retreat at Camp David, Maryland, on September 17, 1978. The accords, cemented by a peace treaty in 1979, saw regional powerhouse Egypt temporarily shunned by the rest of the Arab world and Sadat was assassinated on October 6, 1981.

The late president “had great courage and a vision for the future,” his nephew said, adding that the peace “has always been cold.”

While many Egyptians welcome the absence of war, they remain hostile to Israel.

“Egypt’s acceptance of full diplomatic and political normalisation” has not translated into “a cultural or popular normalisation,” said Mustafa Kamal Sayed, a professor of political sciences at Cairo University.

This uneasy-but-stable status quo is reflected on Cairo’s streets, where many put their antipathy towards Israel down to their neighbour’s policies towards the Palestinians.

“The normalisation failed to gain popular support because of events linked to Palestinians,” said bank worker Mohammed Oussam. He said he could not forget Israel’s bombing of “schools and refugee camps” during Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war.

“The Israelis have not adhered to the principles of peace with the Palestinians or the Arabs,” said another Mohammed.

It’s a sentiment shared by Islam Emam. “We speak of peace, of normalisation then they kill our brothers and take their land,” he said, referring to the Palestinians.

He blames Israel’s government, rather than its citizens. “In the end, nobody truly chooses his government,” he said.

Enmity towards Israel often crystallises over sporting events.

Egyptian and Liverpool football maestro Mohamed Salah has been criticised at home for appearing in a Champions League match in Israel in 2013, when he played for Switzerland’s FC Basel. Salah said he does not make political decisions.

Three years later, Egyptian judo Olympian Islam El Shehaby refused to shake hands with Israeli rival Or Sasson at the Rio Games, a gesture that embarrassed Egyptian authorities.

Writer and Hebrew translator Nael el-Toukhy said any Egyptian who reaches out to Israelis faces intense pressure.

Israel is a hot topic for Egyptian talk shows, guaranteed to stoke the kind of high feelings seen in debates on gay rights.

More than 65% of Egyptians alive were not yet born when the Camp David summit took place but Egyptian public rejection of Israel is a constant.

National politics is also affected, despite decades of formal diplomatic ties.

In March 2016, Egyptian lawmaker Tawfiq Okasha paid a high price for inviting Israel’s ambassador to dinner at his home. Accused of discussing issues linked to national security, he was ousted from parliament in a two-thirds majority vote.

Even the country’s all-important tourism industry is a victim of “cold peace” — of the 3.9 million tourists who visited Israel in 2017, only 7,200 were from neighbouring Egypt.

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