The Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty 40 years on

Walid M. Abdelnasser
Wednesday 27 Mar 2019

The Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty was signed this month 40 years ago, with many of its provisions still open to different interpretations today​

On the 26th of this month, 40 years will have passed since the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty that ended the state of war and established normal relations between Egypt and Israel.

There is no doubt that the treaty signalled an historically unprecedented and qualitative transformation in the history of Egypt, the region and the world as a whole.

The region and the world look very different today from how they were then. One has to go back in time in order to realise how much the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of March 1979 impacted the world as it was then at both the regional and global levels.

The treaty also turned a number of what had been perceived for decades as constants into variables. This impact, in particular, remains with us today.

 The Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty was the first-ever peace treaty between Israel and an Arab country since the establishment of Israel in 1948.

It was described by those who opposed it, whether inside Egypt and the Arab world or at the global level and particularly by leftist countries and forces, as a “separate peace” that had brought Egypt out of the “Arab-Israeli confrontation” and constituted “a stab in the back” for the Palestinian question, considered as the central question and real core of the “Arab-Israeli conflict”.

 Many of the crises the Arab world faced after the treaty were at least partly interpreted in terms of Egypt’s “withdrawal” from the “Arab-Israeli confrontation,” examples being a number of the declarations and decisions by subsequent Israeli governments in the late 1970s and early 1980s, such as the annexation of Jerusalem as the “unified and eternal capital of Israel,” the bombardment of the Iraqi nuclear reactor in the early 1980s, the annexation of the Occupied Syrian Golan Heights, and the invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

However, the proponents of this argument fail to account for the crises the Arab world faced even before the conclusion of the peace treaty and late Egyptian president Anwar Al-Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem in 1977.

Examples of these can be found in the eruption of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975 and the Syrian military intervention in Lebanon in 1976, just to mention a few.

Moreover, history tells us that the peace treaty was followed in 1993 by the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), to be followed one year later by the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty. In real terms, these developments only left the Lebanese and Syrian borders with Israel in a “state of war,” at least at the formal and official levels.

The peace treaty provided for a commitment by both parties to resolving any differences among them in a peaceful manner, thus ruling out any future resort to war in case disputes arose. Although some analysts believe that this commitment goes back to the Second Egyptian-Israeli Disengagement Agreement of September 1975, from a strictly legal perspective it was only reflected in a comprehensive sense in the peace treaty of 1979.

The earlier agreement was interpreted by other analysts as only referring to the subjects covered in that agreement, rather than to the totality of Egyptian-Israeli relations.

The 1979 Treaty also provided for the normalisation of relations between the two parties. This has been the subject of much analysis, review and assessment by observers and historians.

Even at the formal diplomatic level, and although diplomatic relations were never cut between the two countries after normalisation started, there have been periods of “cold peace,” the most significant and the longest of which was Egypt’s withdrawal of its ambassador to Israel in the aftermath of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in June 1982.

However, much more could be said regarding the normalisation of relations at other levels, including at the economic level, which has seen its own fluctuations, and more particularly at the cultural level, where the normalisation of relations between Egypt and Israel is at its lowest ebb, if it ever existed at all.

The subject has been subject to varying, and occasionally contradictory, interpretations, and again from a legal perspective. One interpretation of the normalisation of relations in historical perspective has been to stress that it applies only to bilateral diplomatic relations in the narrow and strict definition of the term, while a second argues that normalisation also covers bilateral governmental and public relations.

A third interpretation says that normalisation is meant to include all the areas that government can control, direct or influence, but not civil society or non-governmental sectors.

The provisions relating to the normalisation of relations between Egypt and Israel in the 1979 peace treaty were a source of criticism at the time, again inside Egypt and in many parts of the Arab world. They have been blamed for many of the challenges faced by the Arab world over the past four decades.

However, history tells us that some of these challenges had nothing, or very little, to do with the treaty, including the eight years of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, and the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, to mention a few.

Moreover, and particularly since the 1990s, several other Arab countries have started, each for its own reasons, the march of normalisation, with various fluctuations, with Israel.

The above are just a few of the many elements that may be worth re-opening for discussion four decades after the conclusion of the March 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.

* The writer is a commentator.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 March, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The peace treaty 40 years on

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