This article is drawn from the author’s speech at the inaugural gathering of the Arab Council for Regional Integration in London on November 19-20, 2019.
This past March marked the 40th anniversary of the ratification of the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty—a peace that has remained in limbo ever since the ink dried from my uncle’s signature.
The treaty ended the state of war between the two sides and established official diplomatic and economic relations. By doing so, the agreement sealed a moment in history by making Egypt the first Arab country to recognize the State of Israel. It thus paved the way for peace between Israel and Jordan in October 1994, and can claim some credit for the recent trajectory of improved relations between Israel and the Gulf countries.
These were concrete and formidable accomplishments, but a sustainable regional peace remains unachieved. Even the cold peace that defines Israeli-Egyptian relations is subject to deterioration, as the recent “Eilat Incident,” the ransacking of the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, and the sabotaging of gas pipelines in the Sinai all suggest.
The unfinished Israeli-Egyptian peace reflects the fact that benign intentions in statecraft, even when sincere, are never self-implementing. They require planning, implementation, patience, and tenacity in the face of inevitable challenge. In the Israeli-Egyptian case, a failure in conceptual planning stands out: the absence of any serious thought about how to integrate the Israeli and Egyptian populations into the treaty implementation process. Too little thought was given as to how to turn a peace of the elites into a peace of the peoples.
We can learn from studying this mutual mistake made by both the Egyptian and Israeli sides, and left uncorrected by U.S. policy. We can reverse engineer it to some extent. If political life were on video tape, then we could roll it back and edit it. It isn’t, but we can review the film, mark the spots we’d like to change, and so make better decisions going forward.
Both sides deserve responsibility for the shortfalls in the implementation of full peace, and both sides were to some extent hostage to circumstances beyond their control. What matters, however, is not what happened decades ago, but what is happening now.
In recent years, Israeli governments have violated Palestinian human rights and humanitarian law on a near regular basis. Israel has violated the Fourth Geneva Convention by allowing and facilitating the settlement of Israeli citizens in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and breached the international law of occupation by confiscating and expropriating thousands of acres of Palestinian land and demolishing many scores of Palestinian homes. For the past quarter century, too, Israel has limited the movement of Palestinians to and from the Gaza Strip, tearing apart families on grounds of exaggerated security concerns and harming the economic health of the area.
Also, recently, Israel’s Prime Minister asserted that Arab parties in the Knesset do not belong in the government and has maintained that “Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people—and it alone.” These declarations were part of a desperate electoral strategy to capture right-wing votes, but they are short-sighted from a peace-making point of view. Similarly, a recent announcement from the Prime Minister’s office that Israel might annex large parts of the Jordan Valley provoked anger and further reduced any lingering trust between Arabs and Israelis.
Many Egyptians also resent the Israeli government for supporting the current rigid regime in Egypt. Some have even hypothesized, without evidence, that Israel instigated the recent political change that resulted in the removal of the previous, democratically elected government.
Taking all these factors into consideration, most Egyptians resent Israel, doubt its credibility, and find it hard to trust. Not all these attitudes are fair-minded and based on actual Israeli misdeeds, but enough are to credit the sentiment.
Egypt is not guiltless, either. Protracted governance failings have made scapegoating Israel an easy mark. Lingering pan-Arabist sentiment, which has filled the vacuum of an otherwise idea-free political regime, has reduced the scope of peace-making with Israel. During the early October 2019 protests, Egyptian demonstrators often chanted pro-Palestinian slogans, and Egyptian leaders have feared to buck the sentiment. Indeed, in 2018, during the commemoration of the October 1973 War, the Egyptian President declared that the peace process with Israel is hurdled and needs mutual effort.
Egyptian media policy compounds the problem. Government-controlled television shows and newspapers continuously depict Jews as inherently evil. The media has used its great influence to instill fear and paranoia in the population, and so has driven a wedge between the populations of the two countries.
Finally, numerous declarations by Egyptians officials that the government should or is reassessing the treaty has added to instability between Israel and Egypt. These declarations are irresponsible, and undermine efforts to achieve full peace.
Quite aside from public declaration bombs and the political shrapnel that harms the bilateral relationship, certain underlying attitudes play a role as well. Many educated Egyptians think that the treaty is biased towards Israel and that it safeguards only the interests of powerful actors in the country. Specifically, many think that U.S. grants of military and economic aid to Egypt are responsible for harmful neo-liberal policies that exacerbate inequality and reward corruption. Amid such an environment, the Egyptian government rarely rises to defend its policies on grounds of genuine national interests.
It is unwise to let the Egyptian-Israeli relationship drift, for it might drift into regrettable places. Just because the treaty has prevented serious security flare-ups for 40 years does not mean it is invulnerable to decay. Complacency is never a good idea, and it is an especially bad one in this case.
We have options. For example, international and neutral actors could, and should, intervene to monitor and mediate between the parties, as well as ensure strict condemnation when humanitarian law is breached in either country. Since both Arab and Israeli populations largely mistrust existing international organizations, newer and perhaps smaller organizations should be enlisted. Best of all, new NGOs that are partnerships of Arab and Israeli grassroots efforts should participate.
In addition, primary political actors should stop using the conflict to draw partisan support at the expenses of peace. Instead of encouraging hatred, racially incendiary comments should be punished as hate speech according to law.
The Israeli government, too, ought to re-set the tone of its relations with the current Egyptian regime. It is futile to expect Israeli authorities to harm an important relationship in the absence of any promising prospect of major pro-democracy change on the Egyptian side. But Israel can still invest in a better long-term relationship with the Egyptian people by affirming its dedication to democracy both inside and outside its borders.
Egypt’s obligations to strengthening the peace are also obvious, but its circumstances are parlous. The state is struggling to maintain peace within the country, and, to do so it, exploits pan-Arab and anti-Israel tendencies to protect its tenure. For that reason alone, it is imperative that political change is actuated and that a multiparty system be installed that reduces the sway of retrograde Arab nationalists and Islamists, both of whom oppose normal relations with Israel.
Building democratic rule in Egypt must ultimately engage the Egyptian grassroots. Egyptians must work toward a higher participatory consciousness that will allow them to be part of the peace process with their Israeli neighbors. The recent uprisings demonstrate potential for this, but changing the rigid political environment will be no cakewalk. While this struggle is the responsibility of Egyptians above all, international actors, not to exclude Israel, have roles to play as well.
The entire international community has a stake in the success of Egyptian democracy and hence of a deeper Egyptian-Israeli peace, but for that to happen both countries’ population must be engaged. Politicians can be selfish, risk-averse, untruthful, and cowardly. Not every leader is a true leader, as was my uncle, in the proper sense of word. Only the engagement of populations, preferably in a democratic framework, can bring out the best in leadership and guard against the worst.
Some history can show us a way forward. Post-World War II Europeans established various cultural initiatives, such as the Erasmus program and the Cultural Route of the European Council, to increase cooperation among different European countries as well as their populations. Israel and Egypt could adapt some of these ideas to reconcile their populations and reduce their animosity towards one another by humanizing the relationships at the grassroots level. The parties must also prevent mutual demonization by limiting the involvement of clerics in political matters. The national element of conflict is bad enough; the last thing either side should allow to happen is for religious incitement to pile on.
We must do whatever works to prevent the Egyptian-Israeli peace from backsliding, and to urge it forward to fulfill its promise. The best way to build trust as the foundation for true peace is to give as many people as possible a concrete and visible stake in the process. Incorporating grassroots energies has to become our number one operational priority.