Robert M. Danin

Middle East Matters

Danin analyzes critical developments and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

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Will Egypt Opt Out from Peace with Israel?

by Robert M. Danin
November 4, 2011

Egyptian prisoners released from Israeli jails hold the Egyptian flag as they flash the victory sign from a bus at Taba crossing between Egypt and Israel on October 27, 2011 (Mohamed Abd El-Ghany/Courtesy Reuters).

King Abdullah of Jordan rang alarm bells when he recently told the Washington Post that the chance of Egypt abrogating its treaty with Israel was “a very strong possibility” and said that “we are the last man standing with our relationship with Israel.”

For over thirty years, the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty has been a cornerstone of U.S. policy in the Middle East. With Egyptians going to the polls later this month to elect a parliament that will nominate an assembly to write a new constitution, many in Washington fear that the elections will produce a government hostile to the peace treaty, particularly should Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated parties fare well at the ballot box.

Such fears are not totally unwarranted. For years, Islamists in Egypt have lambasted Cairo’s peace treaty with Israel. Egyptian president Anwar Sadat was assassinated for signing the treaty. And following Mubarak’s toppling earlier this year, Egypt’s military leaders pledged to take a tougher stance toward Israel. Several violent incidents since have further strained Israeli-Egyptian ties. In August, in an exchange of fire with Palestinian infiltrators from Sinai, Israeli troops killed five Egyptian soldiers. Then, in early September, Egyptian demonstrators infiltrated the Israeli embassy in Cairo and came perilously close to taking it over entirely.

Against these disturbing developments, there is reason to remain hopeful about the durability of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty in the immediate period ahead. The violent incidents between Israel and Egypt seem to have served as a wake-up call for the two countries. The two sides have been working quietly in the last few months to patch things up. Israel formally apologized to Cairo for killing the Egyptian soldiers and the two countries have been quietly exploring ways to return the Israeli diplomats who fled their embassy during the violent demonstrations back to Cairo. Moreover, the two countries cooperated extensively on two prisoner release deals–first the Israel-Hamas exchange and then a subsequent trade of incarcerated Egyptians for an American-Israeli.

While there is little interest among the Egyptian public for a “warm peace” with Israel, a vast majority of Egyptians seem to want to keep the strategic relationship in place. Over 70 percent of Egyptians recently polled by the New York-based International Peace Institute stated their preference for maintaining the peace treaty with Israel. This is a 10 percent increase over a similar poll, released in April, which reported that some 60 percent of Egyptians polled stated their preference for preserving the treaty. Such findings are corroborated by polling conducted by Egypt’s leading Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

Even Islamist candidates, who dominate two of the four main party lists in the upcoming elections, seem to be going out of their way to affirm their intention to maintain ties with Israel. Aboud al-Zomar, an Islamic Jihad leader involved in Sadat’s assassination, has called for the peace treaty to be upheld should Islamists come to power in Egypt. Another Egyptian cleric and presidential candidate affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, Hazem Abu Ismail, told CBC TV on September 12 that while he was an opponent of the peace treaty, as a leader he would not abrogate it or wage war against Israel.

Should Egypt’s upcoming elections produce leaders that are truly responsive to the desires of their people, then it seems that the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty will remain in place, at least for the period ahead. The peace treaty is not necessarily self-sustaining, however. It requires ongoing tending to by both sides as well as active support from Washington, its original broker and sponsor. For now, predictions about the treaty’s imminent collapse, as put forward by King Abdullah, seem premature.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Matt

    The military have taken Israeli advice given to Mubarak and Suleiman on the uprising and are applying it themselves, the revolution is slowly dying.

  • Posted by Omar Ibrahim Bakr

    Both the Egyptian and Jordanian peace agreements with Israel, and in essence the PLO’s Oslo, were attempts to circumvent the fundamental Palestinian question, create and enhance an era of “forgive and forget”!
    All historical ,politicl, cultural/confessional and practical impossibilties as the whole world is discovering with the passage of time.

    It is not only than none settled the issue of Palestinians’ inalienable rights in their homeland But equally that none tackled the issue of Israel’s prospective regional standing and role in a manner liable to be accepted.
    All agreements were, in a sense, truce, cease fire, agreements that dared not broach the fundamental issues that the implantation of Israel in Palestine gave birth to.
    Sooner than later all agreements will fold away and the existential struggle will resume .

  • Posted by PAUL MARTIN

    Your generally accurate article suffers from one widely-held inexactitude. You wrote: ” Egyptian president Anwar Sadat was assassinated for signing the treaty.”

    Actually I was reporting from Cairo for the BBC and NPR during that period and followed the trial of assassin Khaled Islambouli and his fellow-shooters. There was scarcely a mention of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty.

    The prime motivation for the assassination was revenge for Sadat’s clamp-down on Muslim fundamentalist opponents… just a month before, he had locked up something like a thousand of them, plus some secular opponents and some Christian hardliners. Islamist opposition went back to the 1920s and was less harshly dealt with by Sadat than by his predecessor Gamal Abdel Nasser.

    The army cell that replaced blanks with live ammunition was part of the Gamaat Islamiya (now running for Parliamentary seats in the new Egyptian elections), and one of those Sadat had recently arrested, as I remember, was Islambouli’s brother.

    Sadat’s generally pro-Western tilt was not the cause of violence either. The burgeoning rich-poor gap may well have bolstered fundamentalism, though, along with the endemic widespread corruption.

    Feel free to continue this discussion on paulmartin.wnf@gmail.com.

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