The Egyptian Precedent for Peace

To understand why the Oslo process has not succeeded, and why Palestinians and Israelis are not living peacefully beside each other, it is useful to look at the first Arab-Israeli peace process that did work. The contrast between what happened during negotiations with the Egyptians and what has been going on with the Palestinians is so stark that even Israel’s harshest critics would have to admit the evidence is clear that the Palestinians either have no interest in peace or simply don’t understand what’s required to make it a reality.

Relations between Egypt and Israel are hardly the ideal envisioned when the peace treaty was signed more than 20 years ago, but, despite all the problems and risks, it has endured. Though the final agreement was hammered out in intensive negotiations at Camp David, the route to peace was a long, tortuous one that took years to navigate. What made it possible, however, was the commitment both nations made to peace and the actions they took to insure it.

Egypt and Israel were at war for more than 25 years before they even began to talk about peace. Bloody conflicts were fought in 1948, 1956, 1967, 1968-70 and 1973. The anger, heartache and distrust of a quarter century did not dissipate overnight, not even with Sadat’s dramatic trip to Jerusalem. No, the slow boat to Camp David began after the 1973 war when Henry Kissinger facilitated the negotiation of a disengagement agreement in which both sides made significant concessions. The U.S. played a key role as mediator, and also provided American reconnaissance to monitor compliance and offered economic and military aid as inducements for taking risks.

Egypt had demanded that Israel make a substantial withdrawal from Sinai and commit to abandon all its territorial gains from 1967, but Israel gave up only a tiny area of the Sinai. So what did Egypt do? Did it launch terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians? No, the Egyptians engaged in more negotiations.

The first agreement was signed in January 1974. It took about a year and a half before a second agreement was reached. It wasn’t easy. Israel came in for plenty of criticism for “inflexibility” and the Egyptians were no less difficult. Anwar Sadat agreed to limit anti-Israel propaganda in the Egyptian press and end his country’s participation in the Arab boycott. Yitzhak Rabin also made difficult territorial concessions, giving up oil fields and two critical passes. Once again the U.S. played an invaluable role in bringing the parties together and offering political, military and economic support as a reward.

After “Sinai II,” Egypt still had not recovered all of its territory. Sadat was dissatisfied and was pilloried by the other Arabs for going as far as he did toward peace with Israel. Nevertheless, he did not resort to violence. There was no unleashing of fedayeen, as Nasser had done in the 1950s. Instead, he continued talking.

It took three more years before the Camp David Accords were signed and another six months after that before the final peace treaty was negotiated. That’s roughly five years of trying to work out issues that were no less complex than those in the current impasse.

Israel gave up much of its strategic depth in the Sinai. Israel also relinquished direct control of its shipping lanes to and from Eilat, 1,000 miles of roadways, homes, factories, hotels and agricultural villages. Because Egypt insisted that Jewish civilians leave the Sinai, 7,000 Israelis were uprooted. This was a physically and emotionally wrenching experience, particularly for the residents of Yamit, who had to be forcibly removed by soldiers. Israel also lost electronic early-warning stations, which were vital to defending against an attack from the east. Israel was forced to relocate more than 170 military installations, airfields and army bases after it withdrew. Israel may also have given up its only chance to become energy-independent by giving up the oil fields in Sinai.

And what did Israel get from Egypt for all these tangible concessions? A promise. A promise of a new future of peaceful relations. Not everyone in Israel wanted to take the risk, but the government was able to do so primarily for one reason – Egypt had demonstrated over the previous five years that it could resolve disputes with Israel peacefully and that it no longer wished to destroy its neighbor.

Egypt still wasn’t completely satisfied. Sadat demanded a small sliver of land that Israel retained in the Sinai. It took another nine years before international arbitration led Israel to give up Taba. Egypt could have used this dispute as a pretext for violating the peace treaty, but it did not, it negotiated.

The premise from the beginning of Oslo was that disputes would be resolved by talking not shooting. The Palestinians have never accepted this most basic of principles for coexistence. The answer to Israel not withdrawing far enough or fast enough is more negotiations, more confidence-building measures, more demonstrations of a desire to live together.

Egypt has a long, storied history. The Palestinians could learn a lot from studying it.