As peace agreements between Israel and its Arab neighbors draw near, Israel’s experience with the treaty it already has with an Arab state assumes greater significance. Surprisingly little attention has been paid to the extent to which the terms of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, soon to enter its fifteenth year, have in fact been implemented.
Recently, representatives of the three parties to the Camp David accords have affirmed their satisfaction with the outcome of those accords. In August, Egypt’s ambassador to Israel, Mohammed Bassiouny, told a group of American Jewish leaders that the results had “exceeded all optimistic expectations.” That same month Israel’s Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, wrote that “the peace with Egypt should set us an example, as it has proven that a stable peace with an Arab country can be achieved and maintained.” Interviewed on the Charlie Rose show on September 29, former President Jimmy Carter said, “The treaty has been meticulously observed on both sides.”
Although there is widespread awareness, despite such official encomiums, that this is a “cold peace,” the absence of war is often treated as sufficient vindication of the treaty. Speaking in 1984, after the Egyptian ambassador to Israel had been recalled “temporarily” for two years, Yehuda Blum, then Israel’s UN representative, said that all segments of the peace treaty except one had been violated by Egypt, but that single exception, Egypt’s promise never to go to war again with Israel, alone made the entire pact worthwhile.
But the simple absence of war (so far) is a dubious criterion by which to judge the treaty’s worth. There has been a similar absence of war (so far) on the Syrian front without a treaty. William Quandt, who was the Middle East expert on the National Security Council in the Carter administration, and whose sympathy for the Arab viewpoint is no secret, nonetheless declared that the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty had to involve more than the absence of fighting. Shortly after the Camp David accords had been signed he wrote: “Any peace with the hope of permanence must include more than the mere signing of a document. The term ‘peace’ must evolve to include the necessity of changing the nature of relations between the nations of the area.”
But that is precisely the problem. The nature of the relations between Egypt and Israel has not really changed. Israel gave much more than it bargained for to achieve much less than it anticipated. If the peace with Egypt, as Peres asserts, is to set an example, it is an example fraught with peril for Israel.
The extent of the sacrifices made by Israel’s Menachem Begin in the negotiations with Egypt’s Anwar Sadat are sometimes unappreciated. Although it is widely believed that Sadat’s decision to visit Israel was a spontaneous inspiration, Begin had already offered to return the Sinai in secret negotiations between Israel’s Foreign Minister, Moshe Dayan, and Egypt’s Deputy Prime Minister, Hassan Touhemi. Begin’s initial plan, however, called for Israel to retain the Etzion air base in northern Sinai and for the Sinai settlements, of which Yamit was the most important, to remain, although both would be formally under Egyptian sovereignty. But faced with Sadat’s fierce rejection—“Even if Israel comes three-quarters of the way, or 99.9 percent of the way, part of our land will still remain in Israel’s hand”—Begin relinquished both air base and settlements.
Israel, then, gave more for the treaty with Egypt than it had originally intended. Worse yet, in the end Israel also received much less than it had every right to expect it would get.
The bargain struck by the treaty with Egypt was clear. Israel was to withdraw its armed forces and civilians from the Sinai, giving Egypt sovereignty up to “the international boundary between Egypt and mandated Palestine.” In return, Egypt was to establish “normal and friendly relations.” Such relations were defined as: “Full recognition, diplomatic, economic, and cultural relations, termination of economic boycotts and discriminatory barriers to the free movement of people and goods.” An annex promised that negotiations would follow to fashion agreements fleshing out the details of normalization in specific areas: trade and commerce; cultural relations; free movement; transportation; and telecommunications, among others.
Delegations from Israel and Egypt soon met to do just that. The most important agreements produced by their efforts covered civil aviation; tourism; agricultural cooperation; trade; cultural exchanges; transportation; exchange of youth delegations; and cooperation in telecommunications, television, and radio.
Although the texts of the Camp David accords and the subsequent treaty were widely available, the contents of these agreements (some 50 in all) remained unknown and inaccessible. But about ten years ago, Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, apparently unaware that it might later be considered an embarrassment, published a report (Israel’s Foreign Relations: Selected Documents 1979-1980) containing eight of these agreements. They were amazingly detailed.
Under the terms of the agricultural agreement, for example, Israel and Egypt promised to “undertake joint research projects in fields of major interest, including the exchange of scientists, joint seminars and symposia, and exchange of research information.” The two countries would “cooperate in promoting field crops, vegetables, fruit, floriculture, spices, and medicinal plants production.” They would also cooperate in animal production, including “poultry, dairy, sheep, and goats with emphasis on breeding, nutrition, and management as well as the organization of artificial insemination.” They would work together on veterinary services to “prevent, control, and eradicate the animal diseases affecting the animal population of the two countries.” There was to be joint “development and manufacture of veterinary pharmaceuticals and vaccines.”
As if all this were not sufficiently spelled out, under the category of “Plant Protection” the agreement called for coordination of “plant-quarantine inspection procedures” and of “post-harvesting and processing activities, including technologies related to production and cleaning of seeds, grading, packing houses, pre-cooling, grain storage, cotton gins, slaughter houses, feed mills, etc.” The agreement also promised “joint programs and exchange of experience, methods, and know-how between their respective agricultural extension services and institutions.”
A similarly detailed agenda was adumbrated by the cultural agreement, which in Israel’s perspective assumed special importance as a means of transforming attitudes among an Egyptian public accustomed to the demonization of the Jewish state. Here the two countries pledged “contacts and exchange of visits of experts in the cultural, artistic, technical, scientific, and medical fields”; “exchange of cultural, educational, and scientific publications”; “exchange of archeological and technical reproductions”; “exchange of art objects and the encouragement of holding scientific, technological, and plastic-arts exhibitions”; and “exchange of radio and television programs, recordings, and tapes, as well as cultural and scientific films.”
Israel and Egypt further promised to “facilitate visits of scientists, scholars, and research workers of the other country”; to develop special-equivalence “diplomas, certificates, and academic degrees”; and to “encourage and promote youth and sport activities between youth and sports institutions in each country.”
These agreements—together with their many other, equally detailed, counterparts—formed the substance of the “normalization,” the new era of relations, which Israel believed it was obtaining in exchange for giving up the Sinai. And, indeed, Egypt at first seemed to be moving in that direction. There was a brief period of improvement in images of Israel in the Egyptian press; some tourism from Egypt to Israel; one youth exchange; participation by a substantial number of Israeli firms in international exhibitions in Cairo; and participation by a few agricultural experts in projects in the Nile delta. However, once Israel had completed its three-year phased withdrawal from the Sinai in April 1982, relations were frozen. True, Anwar Sadat, who had led Egypt into Camp David, had by then been assassinated, and Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in June of that year did not help matters. But the fundamental reason for the freeze was later offered by King Hassan of Morocco. He reported in 1984 that Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarak, had told him the treaty was empty of substance since “Cairo had obtained from it what it could.”
Thus, within short order Egypt was not merely failing to continue with the positive measures it had promised; it was massively and directly flouting the agreements. Perhaps most important, semiofficial and so-called opposition papers alike kept up a relentless barrage of hostile propaganda. To Israel, ending the “teaching of contempt” was such a central target that it had put the promise “to abstain from hostile propaganda” into the text of the treaty itself. But as Rivka Yadlin of Hebrew University’s Truman Center has extensively documented, today only Iran can compete with Egypt as the world center for the publication and dissemination of both original and “classic” anti-Semitic literature. Not only are the Protocols of the Elders of Zion widely distributed in book form, but excerpts appear in semiofficial Egyptian newspapers, popular television series, and religious broadcasts. There are no favorable portrayals of Israel in any forum to counter the venom.
No charge is too vicious or indeed absurd. Two Egyptian newspapers, Al-Akhbar (December 30, 1988) and Al-Masa’a (December 11, 1991), portrayed the blowing up of the Pan Am plane over Lockerbie, Scotland, as an Israeli plot. Israel has been accused of introducing hoof-and-mouth disease into Egypt (Al-Ahram, June 8, 1987); of exporting radiation-contaminated food to Egypt (Al-Ahram, April 21, 1987); of introducing “most of the plagues that afflict agriculture and animal health” (Al-Jumhuriyah, September 13, 1988); of causing earthquakes in Egypt (Al-Wafd, December 27, 1992); of bombing the World Trade Center in New York while contriving to throw blame on the Arabs (Al-Jumhuriyah, April 5, 1993); of introducing AIDS into Egypt (Rose Al-Yusuf, July 2, 1990); and of polluting the entire globe (Rose Al-Yusuf, June 15, 1992).
In cartoons and caricatures, Egyptian newspapers do not portray Jews as they have actually seen them in the Arab world, but rather copy Nazi graphics. When a symbol for the Jew is used, it is a snake or some hideous imaginary monster. Egyptian TV, hermetically sealed against favorable portrayals of Israel, routinely shows anti-Israel and anti-Semitic films. It also broadcasts sermons describing the Jews as enemies of Islam and enmity toward Israel as a religious duty.
So, too, in other fields covered by the treaty. Far from fostering trade, commerce, tourism, and cultural and educational exchanges, the Egyptian government has strangled them. Apart from oil (which Israel buys from Sinai wells it formerly controlled), trade is minuscule. In order to import goods from Israel, an Egyptian company must obtain a “license” requiring the personal approval of the Minister of the Economy—until 1987, the Prime Minister’s approval was required. Potential importers are “advised” to reconsider their plans. And the public sector, accounting for 80 percent of Egypt’s economy, has been off-limits to Israel.1
In spite of the fact that Egypt undertook to end all economic boycotts of Israel, its government continues in practice to enforce the Arab boycott. Goods with the label “Made in Israel” may not be sold in Egypt, and the press publishes blacklists containing the names of individuals and companies suspected of dealing with the Jewish state. Egyptian trade unions will have no dealings with the Israeli Histadrut, and all unions and professional associations have passed resolutions requiring their members to observe the boycott.
Tourism is almost entirely a one-way affair, from Israel to Egypt. Egyptian citizens are deterred from going to Israel by being forced to obtain a “yellow card” not required of travelers going anywhere else. Those who nonetheless apply often receive visits from the security services. The few individual scientists or other professionals who have traveled to Israel have been boycotted by their professional associations, their example hardly encouraging others to follow suit.
Israeli tourists do venture into Egypt, but it is important to note that they, too, become pretexts for fostering hatred in the press. In 1991 an Egyptian tour guide, Shirin Mahmad Tusun, wrote in Siaha: “The odor which the Israeli tourist gives off is unbearable. Even the Israeli woman doesn’t worry about her clothing and hates cleanliness. She showers only infrequently because the water and soap cost money. Other tourists have learned to recognize the Israeli by his smell.” This is a straightforward borrowing from the medieval Christian idea that the Jew had a peculiar body odor, the foetor judaicus, or Jewish stench.
There have been a number of attacks on Israeli tourists on Egyptian soil, the most chilling in 1985 when seven Israelis visiting the Sinai, four of them children, bled to death after being shot by a supposedly crazed Egyptian soldier. Two doctors and six qualified army medics were made to stand by helplessly for more than four hours, kept from the wounded by the guns of Egyptian soldiers. Mubarak pronounced the whole affair a “small matter,” and worst of all, the soldier who murdered the seven Israelis was treated as a national hero in the press.
Israelis have hardly been the only victims of attacks on tourists, which have become a favored form of Islamic fundamentalist assault on government authority. What is disquieting is the lack of sympathy for the Israeli victims in the Egyptian press. After nine Israeli tourists were murdered by PLO terrorists in a bus near Ismailiya in 1990, there was a burst of condemnation. But it was not of the murders, for which the press expressed understanding; it was of the PLO’s “gross ingratitude” (Al-Mussawar, February 23, 1990) in staging the murders on Egyptian soil. The PLO, said Muhammad Qandil, editor of Akhar Sa’a (February 21, 1990), would do better to assist the intifada, “to dedicate to it the PLO’s billions on deposit in secret accounts in Jewish banks.”
In violation of its undertaking to end all political boycotts of Israel, Egypt has been in the forefront of attempts to maintain and even increase Israel’s isolation. In 1989 the then-Soviet ambassador to Egypt reported his surprise on being summoned by the Egyptian Foreign Minister who protested a proposed Soviet thawing of relations with Israel. When the ambassador observed that Egypt had diplomatic relations with Israel, he was told that Egypt had no choice, but the Soviets did. He was also told that “resumption of relations with Israel would harm the Arab boycott.” Further, Egypt repeatedly urged African nations not to resume relations with Israel. And when, during the Bush administration, the United States led the effort to rescind the UN’s Zionism-equalsracism resolution, Egypt headed the unsuccessful campaign to keep the resolution intact.
What Israeli leaders who put such hope in Camp David do not seem to have realized was that normalization had very different meanings for Israel and for Egypt. For Israel normalization was the essence of peaceful relations. For Egypt normalization was yet another form of Israeli aggression. Thus an article in Al-Jumhuriyah (June 4, 1985) complained: “Israel thinks that Camp David entitles it to a cultural and economic invasion of Egypt. That is why it insists on normalization and on special relations with Egypt. . . .”
Given that normalization has proved a mirage, the demilitarization of the Sinai and Egypt’s promise to keep the peace have become the only benefits accruing to Israel from the Camp David accords. But here, too, the situation is worrisome. When Israel signed the treaty, the then-chief of staff, Mordechai Gur, demanded that the Egyptians dismantle their huge armed forces, move to a system of reserves, and transfer a portion of their regular forces to other fronts. Egypt refused. Its armed forces have continued to be built on the premise that their prime role will be on the Israeli front. Moreover, despite the hope that Egypt would scale down its military forces, it has vastly increased its military capabilities since Camp David.
Here the United States has helped with $20 billion of arms and economic aid, over $7 billion of which was forgiven as a result of Egypt’s participation in the Gulf war. In the fifteen months following that war, Egypt purchased $2.4-billion worth of arms, a huge increase over 1990. Egypt is now building the largest air force in the Middle East. In addition, thanks to the strategic relationship it has developed with the United States as a result of Camp David, Egypt is producing the main American battle tank, the A-1 Abrams; has a license to produce the most up-to-date two-dimensional U.S. radar system; and is cooperating with the U.S. in developing a third-generation shoulder-carried anti-tank missile.
Finally, Egypt has created the infrastructure for substantially greater forces than are permitted to it under the agreement, and remilitarization could be swift. It has even built tunnels under the Suez Canal, making transfer of forces easier to camouflage and harder to prevent.
But does all this mean that Egypt is also prepared to break its promise “never to go to war again with Israel”—the promise which Yehuda Blum said in itself made the treaty worthwhile?
Actually, the promise itself was formulated in ambiguous terms. At Camp David, Egypt insisted upon the stipulation that the treaty with Israel did not take precedence over Egypt’s other treaties with Arab states, according to which Egypt was bound to go to war against Israel if one of them was “attacked.” The Israelis at first protested but then went along when mind-boggling “minutes” were appended saying that this stipulation should not be construed to contradict the promise of peace.
In the wake of Camp David, the rest of the Arab world severed ties with Egypt, temporarily removing the problem. But by 1987 Egypt’s relations with most of its Arab brothers had been largely restored, and since then Egyptian leaders have emphasized that the Arab League Collective Security Pact does in fact take precedence over Camp David.
In 1987, for example, Egypt’s Defense Minister, General Abu Ghazzala, made just such a statement (Al-Shiraa, Lebanon, October 27, 1987), and told the Defense and National Security Committee of the Egyptian People’s Assembly that Israel was Egypt’s “principal and sole enemy” and that, together with Syria, Egypt could achieve a “crushing” victory over the Jewish state (Near East Report, September 11, 1989). In 1988, Usama alBaz, director of the President’s Office for Political Affairs, announced: “Egypt’s commitments to its Arab sisters outweigh any other commitments to any other side” (Middle East News Agency, November 13, 1988). The semiofficial press has also been speaking of a “life span” of fifteen to twenty years for the treaty with Israel, arguing that Egypt signed it out of “necessity,” not of its own free will. In mosques it is commonplace to compare Camp David to the Khudaibiyeh Treaty, which lasted for ten years before the Prophet Muhammad conquered the tribe involved.
As Israeli leaders once again pursue peace treaties with other Arab neighbors, they would do well to attend to the implications of the Egyptian “model.” (The same holds true of the United States, which bids fair to become “guarantor” of certain aspects of those treaties.)
In the current issue of the National Interest, Douglas Feith, a Defense Department official in the Reagan administration, points out that “political leaders around the world show much greater interest in the conclusion of new treaties than in compliance with those already on the books.” To judge from the willingness of Israel’s leaders to embark upon new agreements despite the dismal record of compliance on the Egyptian treaty, this seems to be true of them as well. The United States also, despite the leverage it possessed over Egypt by virtue of military and economic aid, made no effort to hold Egypt to its normalization commitments—even though that aid was premised upon Egypt’s signature on the treaty whose provisions it now ignored.
But to devalue compliance with existing treaties, as Feith points out, is to foreshadow the lack of respect that will be shown to treaties now under negotiation. Feith points out an obvious if uncomfortable truth: democratic countries are at a marked disadvantage in concluding treaties with nondemocratic countries. For when the nondemocratic party violates the agreement, the democratic party wants to avoid a confrontation. Consequently, it belittles, or denies, or makes excuses for, or, as with the Egyptian treaty, simply ignores the violations. After all, what are the options? Going to war?
In the case of Egypt, there was another reason for Israeli silence. Likud did not want the public to focus upon the Egyptian violations because Camp David, negotiated by a Likud government under Menachem Begin, was its proudest achievement. As for Labor, it hoped to sign more such treaties with Israel’s neighbors, and pointing to defects in the implementation of the only existing one was not likely to inspire confidence in their utility.2
Israel’s neighbors are well aware that Egypt has shelved with impunity the elaborate agreements for normalization. The kind of peace Egypt made is one that Syria’s Assad and the PLO’s Arafat can contemplate without undue disquiet. The formula is simple. Israel goes back to the pre-1967 borders. The other side signs pieces of paper and observes, or fails to observe, them as it chooses.
Israel paid an extremely high price for the agreement with Egypt. It not only sacrificed strategically important territory, oil independence, and settlements, but paved the way for the rearming of Egypt by the United States. In return, once Israel had completed the Sinai withdrawal, it was left with little more than nonbelligerency from Egypt. But in assessing the value of this, it is worth stressing once again that, without such sacrifices by Israel, there has been no war on the Syrian front, either.
Presumably Israel’s leaders hope that by coming to terms with Palestinians, Syrians, and Jordanians, they will shore up the peace with Egypt. But Israel will be more vulnerable inside the 1949 borders (or close to them) to which it will have to withdraw in order to conclude such new agreements. Will Israel obtain peace, even a chilly one, as a quid pro quo? Or will Israel’s neighbors be encouraged by its increased vulnerability to attempt their “final solution”? While it is impossible to say with certainty, any sober risk assessment would have to regard the Egyptian experience less as a model than as a warning.
1 As a great “concession,” Mubarak, on Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's recent visit to Egypt, offered to allow Israel to bid for contracts. But bureaucratic obstacles can of course continue to prevent Israel from actually winning them.
2 Judging from the behavior of government officials, the only element of normalization that Israel seems to consider vital is the presence of an Egyptian ambassador. Thus, after Egypt recalled its ambassador “temporarily” in September 1982 following Israel's invasion of Lebanon and years went by without his return, Israeli officials—including the then-Prime Minister, Yitzhak Shamir, and the then-Defense Minister, Moshe Arens—began complaining about Egypt's failure to keep the promises of normalization. But once Egypt appointed a new ambassador—after four years!—the complaints largely faded away.