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That Sinking Feeling

At 25, the Israel-Egypt treaty survives but is badly frayed

March 28, 2004|Steven L. Spiegel | Steven L. Spiegel is professor of political science and director of the Middle East Regional Security Program at the Burkle Center for International Relations at UCLA.

In 1997 I attended an international conference at Tel Aviv University. The meeting was barely an hour old when an Egyptian scholar, who had just delivered a particularly harsh anti-Israeli comment, collapsed with a thud on the floor. An alert Israeli quickly administered mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, and the rest of us were ushered out. As we milled about in the hall awaiting an ambulance, the conversation turned to the political complications likely to arise if the Egyptian died. The Arab press would be filled with conspiracy theories about how he had been killed by Israeli intelligence, and Israeli-Egyptian relations would suffer yet another setback.

I'm glad to say the story had a happier ending. The Egyptian scholar, after a month recovering from a severe heart attack in an Israeli hospital, returned to Cairo and was able to resume a normal life. But the incident stands as a reminder of the fragile nature of the relationship between the two countries -- even with a successful peace treaty, which was signed 25 years ago last week.

The treaty's anniversary comes at a time when peace between Israelis and Palestinians seems an ever-more-distant dream. We should remember, though, that the prospects for peace between Egypt and Israel once seemed at least as bad. Between 1967 and 1973, the countries fought three wars with each other. After the 1973 conflict, it seemed inconceivable that within six years Egypt and Israel would be at peace. But if the treaty is a symbol of hope, it is also a cautionary tale, because the peace it promised is still extremely tenuous.

Today, Egyptian-Israeli relations are shakier than they were in 1997 when that scholar collapsed. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is despised in Egypt, and as a result formal contacts between the two governments have diminished. An Egyptian delegation scheduled to attend a special session of the Israeli Knesset to commemorate the treaty's anniversary canceled its plans in protest of the Israeli killing of Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin. The Egyptian ambassador has long been withdrawn from Tel Aviv to protest Israeli measures that the government of President Hosni Mubarak regards as too harsh toward Palestinians. The Egyptian press is more anti-Israeli and anti-American than ever. Israelis have stopped traveling to Egypt in large numbers. Few Egyptians ever came to Israel; fewer still come now.

So why, with all the conflict, does the treaty survive? Because for both sides it is a godsend. Israel's security has been dramatically enhanced by the confidence that it will not have to fight another war with Egypt, the Arab world's largest, most powerful country. For Cairo, peace with Israel has meant greatly increased economic and military aid from the West, and a favored if occasionally frayed relationship with Washington. Egypt also doesn't have to worry about another war with Israel. With all their current troubles, both Israel and Egypt would be far worse off today if their treaty were to collapse.

Still, it remains an open question whether the treaty can survive another quarter-century. Three factors will determine the answer.

First, the treaty, although it is only between the two nations, is by no means unaffected by regional events. Relations between Israel and Egypt exist within the broader context of the Middle East and could be irreparably damaged by either country's actions elsewhere in the region. Israel's presence in southern Lebanon until it withdrew in May 2000, its sanctioning of continued settlement growth, the fence it is building on the West Bank and its policies toward the Palestinians all grate on Egyptian sensibilities. Similarly, growing anti-Semitism throughout the region -- including Egypt -- can't help but damage relations with Israel, as does vehement Egyptian opposition to Israeli policies in international forums. The future of the treaty will remain uncertain until the broader Arab-Israeli dispute is resolved.

Second, domestic politics in both countries are crucial to the peace treaty's survival. On the Egyptian side, the accord was very much a reflection of then-President Anwar Sadat's approach to relations with Israel. Since Sadat's assassination in 1981, his replacement, Mubarak, has been more cautious, more inclined to abide by the letter rather than the spirit of the treaty. He has, for example, never visited Israel in all the years he's been in office, except for a few brief hours during the funeral of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. Moreover, the conservative Likud has dominated Israeli politics ever since the party's founder, Menachem Begin, signed the treaty. For Likud, which has been in power for 17 of the last 25 years, the treaty was always viewed as a grand bargain -- Egypt would get the Sinai and Israel would keep Gaza and the West Bank. Egyptians don't see it that way. Even so, the current leaders in Israel and Egypt remain committed to the basic idea of a treaty. That won't necessarily remain true as leadership changes.

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