Frail Reeds?

By Elliot Jager
Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Observing Egypt's current upheaval, a writer for the Hebrew daily Makor Rishon has ventured the thought that whatever happens there, and no matter who takes power, "the lesson for Israel is clear: Arab regimes cannot be trusted." Above all, it is futile to pursue a modus vivendi with the Arabs based on the old formula of "land [i.e., Israeli territorial withdrawals] for peace."

Is he right? And was the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, signed in Washington by Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat on March 26, 1979, and involving precisely an Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai in exchange for recognition, a mistake?  

At the time, only two members of Begin's Likud-led cabinet—Ariel Sharon and Haim Landau (1916-1981)—thought so. In a subsequent Knesset vote, Speaker Yitzhak Shamir, another Likud stalwart, abstained. The worry of these hard-liners was that trading land for peace, rather than "peace for peace," would set a dangerous precedent when it came to negotiating over the strategic Jewish heartland of Judea and Samaria (the West Bank).

Such objections seemed beside the point as Israel's border with Egypt was opened, direct air-links were established between Tel Aviv and Cairo, and Begin traveled to tour the pyramids. Nor did they gain further traction when dissident members of Likud, including Geula Cohen and Moshe Shamir, bolstered by the writer Shmuel Katz (1914-2008), an old Begin comrade-in-arms and briefly a member of his cabinet, broke away to establish the Tehiyah or Renaissance party. Tehiyah won three seats in the July 1981 elections, in 1982 vociferously opposed turning over the northern Sinai settlement of Yamit to Egyptian sovereignty, and went on to win five seats in 1984 before being supplanted in 1992 by a like-minded secular party, Tzomet.

With Egypt now tottering between autocracy and an unknown future, and Israelis contemplating, among other things, the possibility of an Iran-like takeover by the Muslim Brotherhood, are the arguments of the Tehiyah camp about to gain new and added resonance?   

In truth, Israeli officials had few illusions about the nature of peace with Egypt, especially after the 1981 assassination of the principal peacemaker, Anwar Sadat, and the ascendancy of Hosni Mubarak. The latter in effect gave Israel an ultimatum: make "peace" with the PLO on the PLO's terms or be resigned to a cold peace with Egypt. Though wary of Mubarak's profligate military build-up (fueled partly by U.S. aid) and irritated by Egypt's debilitating intrigues against Israel at the United Nations, its duplicitous campaigning against Israel's nuclear capacity, and its unwillingness to stop the smuggling of arms into Hamas-ruled Gaza—not to mention the rank anti-Semitism of its state-controlled media—Israeli policymakers nevertheless chose the cold peace.

No wonder. Providentially, Begin's treaty with Egypt was anchored in the demilitarization of the Sinai Peninsula, not in the durability of Egypt's good intentions. It was designed, in short, for the possibility that "a new king would arise in Egypt who knew not Begin." As a result, for the past 30 years, Egypt has been neutralized as a confrontation state. In those years, Israel defended itself against two violent Palestinian uprisings, two Lebanon wars, Hamas's aggression from Gaza, and Iran's drive for the atomic bomb—without having to divert resources to the southern front. And there were diplomatic and economic advantages to the relationship as well, including the fact that 40 percent of the natural gas used by Israel is imported from Egypt.

As has been amply reported, Israelis are more anxious than most about Mubarak's fate. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has reportedly instructed the country's emissaries to say only that while democratic change in Egypt is desirable, violent revolutionary mayhem will undermine the security of the entire region. Even President Shimon Peres, who in a previous incarnation giddily foresaw a Scandinavia-like Middle East emerging by spontaneous generation from the Oslo accords, has now asserted forthrightly that there may be worse things than the current lack of democracy in Cairo, and a fanatic Islamist regime is one of them. 

Is the lesson, then, that Israeli leaders should abandon the possibility of reaching an accommodation with the Palestinians or Syrians? Not at all. Rather, it is that the cornerstones of any deal must take account of the possibility that the successors of the peacemakers might reject peace. For any future accord, the Egypt-Israel treaty, designed for a worst-case scenario and providing demilitarization, strategic depth, and early-warning-plus-verification procedures, remains the best template.

This lesson has hardly been lost on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose Bar-Ilan peace proposal emphasized precisely the security parameters essential for peace. That proposal, however, has been blatantly and irresponsibly disregarded by Netanyahu's critics. 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, in the future.

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