Forty years ago this month, Egypt and Israel signed a peace
treaty in Washington. It was the first peace treaty signed by Israel with an
Sixteen months after Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem, the most powerful Arab state recognized Israel officially, and formally committed to live in peace with it.
The peace treaty came in the wake of a difficult diplomatic process which began with secret dealings between representatives of the two countries, leading to an astonishing visit to Jerusalem by Sadat, the first ever formal visit by any Arab leader to Israel.
Sadat was the only Arab leader who truly understood the collective psychology of the Israeli people. In the eyes of Israelis, Sadat’s visit transformed the Arab-Israeli conflict from an intractable dispute into a manageable disagreement.
Sadat himself used to stress, prior to the signing of the peace agreement, that “90% of the Arab-Israeli conflict is psychological.” He overstated his case, but that is irrelevant. Sadat was not speaking as an objective observer. What is important is that he acted as though the conflict was 90% psychological.
Beyond that, Sadat understood the singular importance of public opinion in the decision-making process of a democracy. He realized that by visiting Jerusalem, he would capture the hearts of the people and thus greatly facilitate the achievement of his diplomatic objectives.
He knew that by eliciting an enthusiastic response from Israeli public opinion he would obtain the support of the people of the United States and their Congress. He would then pave the way for Egypt to get the Sinai Peninsula and a more comprehensive settlement, while creating the basis for a special relationship between Egypt and the United States.
Sadat’s thinking was as strategic in concept as it was creative in form.
Following the surprise election victory of his Likud Party on May 17, 1977, Prime Minister Menahem Begin had to contend with an international campaign of vilification describing him as a warmonger, who might lead the whole region to war.
Begin confounded his critics when he decided to appoint former Labor Defense Minister Moshe Dayan to be his foreign minister. A well-known figure world-wide, Dayan was to grant Begin’s government international legitimacy.
From the outset, Begin and Dayan set on exploring the possibility of a thaw with Egypt. A series of diplomatic moves, among them secret meetings held between Dayan and Egyptian officials, led ultimately to Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem. Contrary to what critics contended, Begin never said he would not be ready to reach a territorial compromise with Egypt over the Sinai Peninsula. He even spoke in the same vein with regard to Syria and the Golan Heights.
The bone of contention was the future of the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) and the Gaza Strip. Neither Begin nor Dayan favored a territorial compromise over those territories. Dayan, for his part, spoke of a “functional compromise” that would entail neither Arab nor Israeli sovereignty—at least not on an exclusive basis. Thus, contrary to what was expected of him, Begin decided not to extend Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, as he promised he would before being elected, pending peace negotiations.
Following Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem, Begin devised an Israeli peace plan recognizing Egyptian sovereignty over the entire Sinai Peninsula and offering an autonomous entity to the Palestinian Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza. This autonomy was to be bereft of any sovereign authority. As far as Begin was concerned, it was a “functional compromise,” as originally advocated by Dayan. The dream of Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank and Gaza was effectively put in deep freeze.
Sadat had always contended that peace between Egypt and Israel, in any case only possible in future generations and not during his lifetime, would not be feasible unless Israel withdrew to the lines of June 4, 1967, on all three fronts (the boundaries prevailing prior to the Six Day War).
The final peace agreement, based on the Framework for Peace signed at Camp David in September 1978 – with the active mediation of then US president Jimmy Carter – reflected a change of position by both Sadat and Begin.
Egypt agreed to sign a peace treaty with Israel that did not entail a full Israeli withdrawal from all the territories captured during the Six Day War – and the agreement did not wait for future generations of Egyptians to be signed, but was signed by Sadat himself.
As part of his consent to withdraw completely from the Sinai Peninsula, Begin agreed to dismantle the Israeli settlements in the area, something he vowed he would not do. Furthermore, a fully autonomous entity was to be established in the West Bank and Gaza for an interim period of five years, following which negotiations were to be held aimed at determining the final status of the territories concerned.
The negotiations that were held between Egypt and Israel – following the peace agreement, aimed at implementing the autonomy plan for the Palestinian Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza – were discontinued by Sadat, who argued that Israel was not negotiating in earnest.
The peace treaty between Egypt and Israel changed the strategic position of Israel in the area. Egypt was no longer the leader of the warring Arab coalition. Rather, with the years, it became a diplomatic bridge between Israel and the Arab world.
Also, as we have witnessed in recent years, the challenge posed by Iran and its regional allies, as well as by Sunni terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS, has led to a tacit strategic alliance between Israel and the Sunni countries in the Middle East.
Egypt and Israel cooperate in the fight against terrorist forces in the Sinai Peninsula. It is difficult to imagine such cooperation without the peace agreement signed forty years ago by those two countries. Indeed, it could be argued that without that peace agreement, the current tacit alliance between Israel and the Sunni Arab states would have been less likely to emerge in the way it has in recent years.
To be sure, the Egypt-Israel peace agreement is embraced by the security establishment in Egypt, but much less so by the people, particularly the professional elites, who harbor a degree of hatred towards Israel not unlike that which prevailed prior to Sadat’s visit to Israel.
Whereas, to begin with, Israelis entertained a romantic image of what peace would look like following a peace agreement with Egypt, with ever closer links between the two people being forged, a more sober attitude prevails now: Israelis seem to be content with the continuation of non-belligerency and regional cooperation against common enemies. This appears to characterize Israeli attitudes to peace in general: security is regarded as paramount; friendship at the popular level can wait.
Perhaps neither Sadat nor Begin imagined peace to look as it does now, forty years later. Their actions, though, altered the strategic environment of the Middle East more significantly than any other diplomatic process in the last seventy years.