The Egyptian-Israeli Treaty at a crossroads

Sobhi Essaila , Tuesday 16 Apr 2024

The ongoing Israeli war on Gaza has put unprecedented pressure on the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty and the process of which it is a part, writes Sobhi Essaila

Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty
Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty


The ongoing Israeli aggression against the Gaza Strip that started on 8 October last year and has now culminated in the threat, even the insistence, to invade the Palestinian city of Rafah along with the Salaheddin axis presents the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty with a test or challenge that is the most severe and dangerous that it has ever faced.

While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insists on pushing the treaty to the brink in this way, claiming that the invasion of Rafah does not violate it, Egypt has upheld and adhered to the treaty despite all it has endured due to Israeli policies. It remained committed to the treaty even in the darkest of circumstances between 2011 and 2013, believing that the treaty is the cornerstone of security and stability in the Middle East. 

Guided by its steadfast principle of seeking to resolve disputes peacefully within the framework of adherence to bilateral and international agreements and treaties, Egypt insists on honouring the treaty but warns of the ramifications of Netanyahu’s actions.

Overall, Egyptian-Israeli relations, or rather the Peace Treaty that has been in place between the two countries for the past 45 years, have faced numerous obstacles or challenges at various stages, starting from the era of former Egyptian president Anwar Al-Sadat. After the signing of the treaty in the late 1970s, it had implications for Arab-Israeli relations in general, as it stipulated in its preamble that the Camp David framework within which it was negotiated was intended to be the basis for peace not only between Egypt and Israel but also between Israel and its Arab neighbours. 

This was later realised, as the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty paved the way for other agreements with Israel, such as the Oslo Accords in 1993, the Wadi Araba Treaty with Jordan in 1994, and the opening of Israeli representation offices in several Arab countries, especially in the Gulf states, leading to what became known as the “Abraham Accords” that involved the UAE and Bahrain and discussions about the possibility of the normalisation of Israeli-Saudi relations.

This underscores the validity of president Al-Sadat’s expectations that war cannot and should not extend indefinitely. War as a means to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has exhausted its purposes, and neither party is able to impose its will on the other by force.

The first challenges faced by Egypt after the signing of the treaty came in the form of criticisms from the Egyptian opposition and Arab countries, which saw it as a surrender on Egypt’s part and a blow to Arab solidarity in the struggle for the Palestinian cause. These countries formed what was called the “Front of Resilience and Challenge” against the treaty and held an Arab Summit in November 1978 to declare their rejection of the Camp David Accords.

They announced a boycott of Egypt and the freezing of its membership in the Arab League, whose headquarters was relocated from Cairo to Tunis. 

Nevertheless, Al-Sadat continued the process that culminated in the signing of the Camp David Accords in 1978 followed by the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty in 1979, during which both parties sought to achieve their goals. Egypt embarked on a path of settlement with Israel aimed at formulating firm ties with it and attempting to make progress towards a comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict, while Israel’s goal in the peace with Egypt was to separate its relationship with Egypt from Arab-Israeli relations and relations with the rest of the Arab countries.

Despite the criticisms levelled at Egypt at the time, the Arab countries began to adopt or embrace Al-Sadat’s idea of the necessity of a political settlement with Israel after a very short period. This was evident when they announced the adoption of an Arab formula for a peaceful settlement based on the idea of ​​relying on political alternatives to deal with the Arab-Israeli conflict at the Fes Summit held in Morocco in 1982 just three years after the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty.

Israel’s aggressive actions towards the Arab countries represented another challenge faced by Egypt. These actions embarrassed and weakened the Egyptian government in the face of escalating internal opposition from those who opposed the Treaty, creating a state of anger and popular resentment against the government’s policy towards Israel. 

Such Israeli aggression included Israel’s attack on Lebanon in 1978, known as Operation Litani, to expel the Palestinian fedayeen groups, especially the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), from the country, and then the Israeli Knesset’s decision in 1980 to make Jerusalem the eternal capital of Israel. There was also the Israeli strike on the Iraqi nuclear reactor Osirak in June 1981 shortly after a meeting between Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and Al-Sadat in Sharm El-Sheikh. 

This led Al-Sadat to express his fear that this incident specifically would rebuild the psychological barrier among Egyptians towards Israel, considering it to be a serious test of the Peace Process and the commitment of both parties to it. He also expressed his concern that the Israeli actions would strengthen the positions of opponents of the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Process.


FRUSTRATION: The Israeli behaviour caused frustration among Egyptians, and the Egyptian public supportive of peace began to steadily decline. 

Silent sentiments of unwillingness to normalise relations with Israel grew, in addition to the Israeli procrastination with Egypt, which led to delays in the Israeli withdrawal from Egyptian territories and a series of Israeli attacks against the Palestinians. This had a significant impact on the development of relations between the two countries, as the Israelis envisioned that Egyptian-Israeli relations would become warm and rapidly develop in a manner resembling relations between any other two countries in the international community. This was particularly because the treaty obligated Egypt to cease anti-Israeli propaganda and work to present the relationship between it and Israel as friendly and natural, considering these warm relations to be a counterpart to the Israeli withdrawal from Sinai. 

This idea was laid out by Yitzhak Navon, the president of Israel in the early 1980s, when he stated that “in return for our relinquishing those material assets in Sinai, the Peace Treaty must be translated into actual relations.” However, bilateral relations did not progress as Israel desired. Egypt insisted on separating the treaty’s official relations from other fields of normalisation and resisted Israeli pressure to engage in coercive normalisation beyond what the agreement required.

During the tenure of former president Hosni Mubarak, it was clear from the outset that he did not intend to change the foreign policy pursued by Al-Sadat regarding Israel and the settlement process in general. His position on it largely aligned with that of Al-Sadat. However, it was evident that Egyptian foreign policy under his leadership pursued parallel paths: full respect for the Peace Treaty and the completion of the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Process on the one hand, and persistent efforts to restore Egypt’s Arab relations on the other, while reaffirming Egypt’s rejection of the Israeli concept of Palestinian rights and its actions towards neighbouring countries. 

This position was evident in Egypt’s stance on the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Egypt condemned this invasion and decided, especially after the Sabra and Shatila massacres in Beirut, to recall its ambassador from Tel Aviv, conditioning his return on Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon. Egypt remained steadfast in its position despite the US attempts to link Egyptian-US relations to Egyptian-Israeli relations. 

During the negotiations that followed the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference, Egypt dealt with the negotiations in a manner that did not undermine the Peace Treaty with Israel, while at the same time without being pushed to refrain from dealing with or containing the problems resulting from the Israeli government’s stubbornness and expansionist policies.

Concerning the Palestinian issue, Egypt has consistently linked bilateral relations with progress in the Peace Process. As negotiations for settlement advance, tensions in Egyptian-Israeli relations recede, leading to the closure of many contentious issues. Conversely, when Arab-Israeli settlement negotiations stall, tensions reemerge in Egyptian-Israeli relations, reopening contentious issues.

A main challenge remains the negative stereotypes entrenched within Egyptian public perceptions of Israel as a racially discriminatory state reliant on military power and aggression. Israel is perceived as being a society designed for perpetual warfare, a perception bolstered by Israeli policies over the past three decades. 

These policies have perpetuated a state of constant tension between the two sides, rendering Egyptian-Israeli relations perpetually clouded by suspicion and doubt. Furthermore, regional instability has exacerbated the tensions, with the region witnessing numerous wars and conflicts, including those involving Iraq, Iran, the Gulf wars, two Palestinian uprisings, six Israeli wars against Gaza, the Lebanon War, and the chaos resulting from the Arab Spring.

It is worth noting in this context that Netanyahu’s ascent to power in Israel coincided with persistent tensions in the bilateral relationship. Despite the establishment of the International Peace Alliance, known as the Copenhagen Peace Alliance, in January 1997, hopes for progress in the settlement process that could positively impact Egyptian-Israeli relations were overshadowed by crises. 

Netanyahu’s policies, focusing on Israeli security, land, settlements, and a peace-for-peace approach, while sidelining concepts such as a Palestinian state and withdrawal from the Occupied Territories, further strained relations. His reluctance to engage with the remaining difficult stages of the Peace Process stalled the negotiations entirely, negatively affecting Palestinian support for them.

Moreover, Netanyahu’s tenure saw the increased harassment of the Egyptian ambassador in Tel Aviv, indicating a shift from a cold peace to a cold war between the two countries. The visits to Cairo by Israeli officials failed to alleviate tensions between the two sides.


DISPUTES: Egyptian-Israeli disputes persisted over the Palestinian settlement process and escalating disagreements over defence and armament policies in the 1990s. Israeli newspapers even speculated in April 1998 about Egypt’s intention to wage war against Israel in 2000.

Political and media campaigns intensified, further straining relations. Egypt refused to release the Israeli spy Azzam Azzam, while Israel refused to cooperate with Egypt regarding the situation of 24 Egyptian prisoners held in the country.

Tensions persisted into 1999, with the disagreements indicating an ongoing state of cold war. An Israeli intelligence report claimed Egypt posed a greater threat to Israel than Iran, reflecting mutual perceptions of threat between the two sides. Former Israeli Chief of Staff Matan Vilnai described Egypt as a threat to Israel’s security.

The ceasefire in the earlier war on Gaza and the issue of releasing a captured Israeli soldier dominated Egyptian-Israeli relations in 2009, contributing to heightened tensions. Netanyahu’s return to the premiership in Israel exacerbated these as he generally disregarded peaceful settlement efforts and previous peace proposals.

Since January 2011, tensions in relations have resurged, leading Egyptians, both members of the elites and the general public, to scrutinise the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty like never before. Calls for its cancellation or modification have increased, with some resorting to legal action, albeit unsuccessfully, and arguing that the treaty restricts Egypt’s sovereignty, particularly in Sinai, in favour of Israel.

The Israeli apprehension over the events in Egypt in 2011 was evident and was expressed clearly by the Israeli leadership and elites. A survey of Israeli public opinion revealed that two-thirds of Israelis saw Mubarak’s departure from power in 2011 as a threat to Israel. 

The sense of danger among Israelis due to the Egyptian 25 January Revolution prompted the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University to demand a thorough preparedness in Israel for radical changes following the departure of the Egyptian president. Israel also expressed its anger towards the US stance on the events in Egypt, leading to numerous calls to secure international support for the idea that any future Egyptian regime must respect the agreements signed with Israel, specifically the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty. 

Israel, as noted by the Western commentator Patrick Seale, found itself in a state of high tension due to the Egyptian Revolution and fearing for the continuity of the Peace Treaty, which has been a cornerstone for stability in the region and has secured Israel’s dominance. Former Israeli foreign minister Moshe Dayan described the treaty as the wheel without which the cart would not move forward.

Israel sought a clear stance from Cairo regarding the Peace Treaty, and Egypt’s position was articulated by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) after it assumed the management of the state following Mubarak’s resignation in 2011, affirming Egypt’s commitment to all the international agreements it had signed. 

The Israeli prime minister welcomed the Egyptian army’s announcement, emphasising that the long-standing peace with Egypt had served both countries significantly, forming the cornerstone for peace and stability in the entire Middle East. 

However, discussions about the necessity of reconsidering the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty gained traction in Egypt during the period from 2011 to 2013. The People’s Assembly voted in March 2012 to expel the then Israeli ambassador from Cairo, asserting that Egypt would not be a friend or partner of Israel and that it represented the number one enemy to Egypt and the Arab nation. The stance on the treaty and the peace with Israel in general became a key issue in the platforms of the candidates in the 2012 presidential elections in Egypt, marking an unprecedented development in Egyptian-Israeli relations.

In recent years, Egyptian-Israeli relations have experienced a kind of calm, allowing for the modification of clauses in a security agreement with Israel on 7 November 2021 to enhance the Egyptian presence in the border area of Rafah and thereby enhance security according to evolving circumstances. This was reflected in the decreased focus on the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty in public discourse after 2011.

In sum, the factors that have governed relations between Egypt and Israel over the past five decades have included the capability, and, prior to that, the desire, demonstrated by both parties to maintain their official relationship and to manage or contain anything that could jeopardise it. 

Today, this equation faces a tough test and significant risks imposed by Israel’s aggression against Gaza, while Egypt insists that any direct or indirect infringement of its national security is a red line that cannot be crossed. Moreover, any serious disruption of the spirit of the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty could render it vulnerable to annulment or suspension, posing a threat not only to the relationship between the two countries but also to the security and stability of the Middle East region as a whole. 

In other words, the treaty has come under scrutiny due to the significant Egyptian anger at Israel’s brutal war on Gaza, as reported by the Associated Press in February, which said that Egypt might suspend the treaty if Israeli forces invade Rafah. This was echoed by The Wall Street Journal on 10 February, which said that Egypt had threatened that if a wave of Palestinians crossed the border with Gaza or if the Israeli army invaded Rafah, this would constitute a violation that could effectively suspend the Peace Treaty with Israel.

Egypt’s official stance has not indicated any plans to suspend or cancel the Treaty, as affirmed by Minister of Foreign Affairs Sameh Shoukri on 12 February, who said that “Egypt is committed to the Peace Treaty with Israel, which it has upheld for 45 years.” 

This assertion underscores Egypt’s steadfast commitment to its diplomatic obligations and the profound significance of the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty. Egypt consistently endeavours to navigate it in a manner conducive to regional stability, averting the perils of the brinkmanship tactics employed by Netanyahu. 

Without the treaty, the spectre of chaos would loom large over the entirety of the Middle East.

* The writer is head of the Israel Studies Unit at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 18 April, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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