Marking four decades to Egypt-Israel ‘cold peace’
LONDON - On the White House South Lawn on March 26, 1979, a beaming US President Jimmy Carter placed his hands over the double-handshake taking place between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin.
Sadat and Begin had just signed the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, ending an official policy of enmity between Cairo and Tel Aviv and igniting hopes for a wider Arab-Israeli peace. “We have won, at least, the first step of peace, a first step on a long and difficult road,” Carter said
It was not an easy route to peace. By 1979, Egypt and Israel had fought four wars, including the catastrophic Six Day War in 1967, in which Israel seized the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, the West Bank — including East Jerusalem — from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria. The Yom Kippur War in 1973 represented an important psychological vindication for the Egyptians and opened the door to peace talks.
On November 9, 1977, Sadat shocked Egypt’s parliament — and visiting Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat — by deviating from a prepared speech to say he was willing to “go to the end of the world” and even Israel’s Knesset in search of peace.
When Begin extended an invitation to Sadat, the Egyptian president accepted despite the opposition of his top aides. Egyptian Foreign Minister Ismail Fahmi resigned in response.
Sadat’s speech before the Knesset on November 20, 1977, is considered a historic address.
“I have chosen this difficult road, which is considered, in the opinion of many, the most difficult road,” he said. “I have chosen to come to you with an open heart and an open mind. I have chosen to give this great impetus to all international efforts exerted for peace. I have chosen to present to you, and in your own home, the realities devoid of any schemes or whims, not to manoeuvre or to win a round but for us to win together, the most dangerous of rounds and battles in modern history — the battle of permanent peace based on justice.”
Sadat remains the only Arab leader to visit Israel and address the Knesset.
It was Sadat’s visit to Israel that heralded secret Egyptian-Israeli talks at Camp David in the United States one year later that led to the peace deal signed in March 1979.
The treaty called for full normalisation of relations between the two countries, Israel withdrawing armed forces and civilians from the Sinai Peninsula, Cairo turning the Sinai into a demilitarised zone, as well as unhindered passage of Israeli ships through the Suez Canal and the recognition of the Straits of Tiran and the Gulf of Aqaba as international waterways.
Sadat and Begin were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1978, with both men expressing hopes that the Egypt-Israel peace treaty would lead to a wider peace.
That peace has not materialised. Less than three years later, Sadat was assassinated by members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad who objected to the treaty. Begin launched the 1982 Lebanon War, which contributed to his resignation and led to further rounds of conflict.
Egypt and Israel established full diplomatic relations in 1982 and Egypt remained the sole Arab country to officially recognise Israel until 1994, when Jordan took the step.
At a time when Arab-Israeli relations remain in crisis on many fronts, the Egyptian and Israeli governments moved closer, even while relations between the Egyptian and Israeli people remain strained.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi during an interview with CBS News’ “60 Minutes” programme this year said Cairo was pursuing the “deepest, closest cooperation ever” with Israel. He had been asked whether the Egyptian and Israeli militaries were coordinating in the fight against a branch of the Islamic State in the Sinai Peninsula.
Israel is key to Egypt’s ambitions to become a regional energy hub. Israeli companies developing Israel’s largest natural gas field have signed a gas pipeline deal worth $15 billion to send gas to Egypt. There are expectations the deal could soon be expanded.
Egyptian negotiators have been important mediators in talks between Israel and Hamas, including negotiations to end the recent flare-up along the Gaza Strip.
Despite this history, commemorations of the peace treaty were muted in both countries, with a few retrospectives in national newspapers but nothing more. Neither Sisi nor Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu commented publicly on the anniversary of the treaty’s signing
An expansive feature by Egypt’s state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper reported that “Israeli officials have complained that while Egypt has honourably respected its responsibilities under the peace treaty, the peace between Egypt and Israel ‘remains a cold peace.’”