Cold Peace Without Honor

Israel’s agreement to the reestablishment of Egyptian sovereignty over all the areas in the Sinai that Egypt had lost in its repeated wars of aggression against Israel had no precedent in the history of nations, and it established a new and dangerous precedent.


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on March 30, 2004.)

Last week marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the signing of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty at Camp David. Celebrated in Israel, and unmentioned in Egypt. Any discussion of the merits of this treaty, whose conditions are unprecedented in the annals of relations between nations, usually focuses on the question of whether the treaty prevented another war between Israel and Egypt.

If it did, all would agree, that whatever the cost to Israel, it was a worthwhile bargain. But was it really the treaty that prevented another war?

Although nobody can answer this question with certainty, it remains unlikely that Egypt, after suffering its fourth defeat at the hands of the IDF in the Yom Kippur War, and  this time from what were optimal starting conditions – Israel caught by surprise, attacked simultaneously from North and South – would have considered going to war again.

The Egyptian army was defeated, its Soviet weapons inferior. The Egyptian economy was in shambles and has remained in poor shape since then. It is reasonable to assume that war ceased to be an option for Egypt after 1973.

So now we can look at the merits of the treaty from Israel’s point of view. Usually forgotten, the treaty had two parts – total Israeli withdrawal from Sinai in return for full diplomatic relations with Egypt, and the agreement to negotiate with Egypt an autonomy regime for the Palestinian population in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza.

That the concept of autonomy for the Palestinian population while Israel retained control of the area, was anachronistic and unworkable, should have been clear then, and is by now, at considerable cost, clear to all. It ended up in the trashcan of history.

Israel’s agreement to the reestablishment of Egyptian sovereignty over all the areas in the Sinai that Egypt had lost in its repeated wars of aggression against Israel had no precedent in the history of nations. It established a new and dangerous precedent, that this time there was to be no penalty for aggression. In its wake came the ill-fated slogan land for peace, last sounded by Hitler in his quest for the return to Germany of territory lost during the first World War, and now applied by Syrians and Palestinians to justify their claims against Israel.

Seemingly forgotten was the fact that Egyptian control of Sinai only dated back to 1908 and was the result of a British ultimatum to the Ottoman Empire, in control of the Sinai at the time. But possibly worst of all, the agreement that territory turned over to Egyptian sovereignty must first be cleared of its Jewish inhabitants, has come to haunt Israel ever since.

As for the demographic implications of the treaty, rightfully considered of major importance in the minds of many Israelis today, they were completely neglected. The Sinai, almost empty of population was abandoned, while the heavily populated Gaza Strip was retained under Israeli control.

Could Israel have held out for better terms before signing the treaty? Now, we’ll never know. But maybe Israel could have insisted on retaining parts of the Sinai, not giving up some of its air and naval bases, and not uprooting Israeli settlements there, while turning over to Egypt the headache of Gaza.

But Menahem Begin could not do it. For him Gaza was part of the Land of Israel, and Sinai was not. It was easy to give up the Sinai, while nothing could get him to withdraw from Gaza. As a matter of fact, the treaty almost fell apart when Begin refused to agree to the presence of a UN observer in Gaza. The terms of the treaty with Egypt were the wrong for Israel and accepted by Israel for the wrong reasons.

Egypt has made sure that it would be a cold peace. Israelis who hoped that a network of relationships would be established that in time would bring about a peace between friends were to be disappointed. Egyptians have become leading anti-Israel spokesmen, and the Egyptian press is full of anti-Israel propaganda. Egypt uses the large-scale US aid it receives by virtue of the treaty with Israel to acquire weapons for its armed forces.

At this time Egypt is in violation of the treaty. Withdrawal of the Egyptian ambassador from Israel is a blatant violation of the obligation that Egypt took upon herself. But the Israeli government prefers to overlook this violation of the peace treaty. Israel has become reconciled to a cold peace without honor.

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