Egypt and Israel ponder 30-year peace

In Cairo, the 30th anniversary of the signing of the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt is seen by many as a moment for regret, not celebration.

“It’s a celebration for Israel – not for Egypt, not for the Arabs, not for the Palestinians,” says Issam al-Aryan of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist opposition movement which is officially banned in Egypt.

“I think the majority of Egyptians are against the treaty after 30 years.”

Israel is holding events to mark what it calls a “watershed” moment, the first time an Arab nation recognised the Jewish state.

But there are no commemorations in Egypt, where discussion of the treaty focuses on concerns over Israel’s new right-wing government and a campaign in the courts to stop Egypt selling its gas to Israel at below-market rates.

Pariah status

Under the deal, Israel agreed to withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula which it had occupied in whole or in part since 1967.

In return, Egypt agreed to demilitarise the area and normalise relations with Israel.

Promises of a comprehensive peace agreement for the whole Middle East quickly ran into the sand and Egypt went from a leader in the Arab world to a pariah.

But the treaty’s advocates say Egypt won in the long term.

“It has gained territory, it has gained a relationship with United States that is important, it has gained a reputation of being a country of peace,” says former Egyptian diplomat Ahmed Maher, who worked on the treaty.

“In the end I think the result is positive.”

But others say Israel’s recent war in Gaza demonstrates how the deal weakened Egypt.

Despite public outrage, the government refused to open its border with Gaza, leading to accusations that Cairo was putting its relationship with Israel and the US above the suffering of the Palestinians.

“In this case, the main concern of Egypt was to maintain the treaty and at same time not allow it to become obstacle to taking stands against Israel’s actions and aggressions,” says Mr Maher.

“It’s difficult when you want to keep many balls in the air.”

Economic and political ties

Egypt argues by keeping Israel on-side it can mediate between Israel and the rest of the Arab world.

But some say Egypt could worry less about antagonising Israel.

“Since Israel violated its commitments [under the treaty] by carrying out military actions on Egyptian borders, by not going along with the intention in Camp David to reach a comprehensive settlement in the Middle East, and violated its commitments to the Palestinians, and its commitments under international law, I think Egypt has a good argument for offering more support to the Palestinians,” says Professor Mustafa Kamel al-Sayed of the American University in Cairo

As well as political ties, the peace treaty opened economic relations between Egypt and Israel and the US provided vast amounts of financial and military aid to Egypt.

“Generally I think Egyptians are quite realistic,” says Magdi Tolba, Chairman of Cairo Cotton Centre, one of Egypt’s biggest textile factories, who has joint ventures with Israel.

They do not have a problem working with Israelis when it helps economic growth, he says.

But he admits the continued regional instability of the past 30 years has made industry hesitant about forging closer ties:

“We’ve been losing opportunities… Economy-wise, industry-wise, if the area is more stable the sky can be the limit for cooperation.”

Undiplomatic presence

But the arrival of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud-led government in Israel, including the hardliner Avigdor Lieberman as a possible foreign minister, brings fresh concerns for stability.

Mr Lieberman said Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak should “go to hell”, and has suggested bombing the Aswan Dam, drowning Egypt in the waters of the Nile.

Such language does “not make Israelis very good partners”, admits former diplomat Ahmed Maher:

“The Israelis are so arrogant… We are on a very shaky foundation, but a shaky foundation which has endured because we Egyptians have been wise.

“You can’t live by the sword alone, this is something the Israelis, in the arrogance of power, have not yet realised.”

Many Egyptians are bitter that their precedent of exchanging land for peace did not lead to a comprehensive settlement.

Instead, some believe Israel returned Sinai to consolidate its hold on other occupied territories and free its hand to pursue military action against the Palestinians and in Lebanon.

Fact of life

Although there is now talk of a possible deal between Israel and Syria, Issam al-Aryan warns the Syrians not to believe it will help in the wider conflict:

“I hope they can study and review 30 years of discomfort and struggle in Egypt against the treaty.

“They are intelligent enough to get the lesson: the problem is not in Golan or Sinai, it is in Acre, Haifa, Jaffa, Gaza, Ramallah, that is the problem.”

But even the Muslim Brotherhood shies away from calling for Egypt’s treaty to be ripped up.

“Many people are opposed to this treaty,” says Professor Mustafa Kamel al-Sayed.

“Israel did not live up to its treaty… But I think the Egyptian public considers the treaty to be a fact of life”.

In three decades, Egypt’s cold peace with Israel has never warmed.

The treaty may now be a fact of life. But it is still not a comfortable one.

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