Monday marked the thirty-ninth anniversary of the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, which transformed what had been over thirty years of constant tension punctuated by once-a-decade wars into nearly forty years of the coldest peace. Amidst ongoing and recently escalating tensions in Gaza that both countries need to jointly manage along with the covert cooperation taking place between the two in fighting jihadi groups in the Sinai, it is worth thinking about Israeli-Egyptian peace, and what it can and cannot tell us about a hypothetical future peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians and what Israeli-Palestinian cooperation might look like.
Lesson one is that peace is better than the alternative. This is a less obvious point than it may seem at first glance. Relations between Israel and Egypt may be peaceful, but it would be hard to characterize them as good. One the one hand, there is a productive and constant security relationship driven by necessity. Egypt understands that it needs help in taming the Wild West that is the Sinai and making sure that it does not turn into Afghanistan circa the late 1990s, and Israel understands that leaving Egypt to fend with ISIS in the Sinai by itself would leave Israel vulnerable too. But the flip side of this strong security relationship is a lousy diplomatic one, with Egypt inevitably taking the lead in sponsoring or promoting anti-Israel resolutions in the United Nations and condemning Israel for all sorts of policies toward the Palestinians, and even simple economic cooperation on things like natural gas generates enormous public criticism and constant bombings of the joint gas pipeline.
A cynic may assert that Egypt would cooperate with Israel on security issues anyway and that Israel has gotten nothing on top of that cooperation for signing a peace treaty and vacating the Sinai Peninsula. There can be no question though that a cold peace in this case is still better than what came before, as the threat of conflict between Israel and Egypt itself has been removed in every conceivable scenario. There is no way to do this outside of the structure of a peace treaty. Just because Israel at the moment faces no threats from Arab armies as a result of Israel’s overwhelming military advantage does not mean that no difference exists between Israel’s posture toward Egypt and Jordan versus its posture toward Syria and Lebanon. There is no plausible situation in which Israel has to prepare for war with the former group, while war with either of the latter is eminently possible, and there is absolutely no scenario in which Israel could be conducting military operations in the Sinai without an Egyptian peace treaty.
Second is that it is unrealistic to expect the other side to be Zionists, but it is also unnecessary that they be Zionists. Egyptians before the peace treaty did not largely accept Israel’s legitimacy, and while more of them may do so now, it would be impossible to overstate the depth of hatred there is toward Israel from ordinary Egyptians. The Israeli embassy in Cairo has been shuttered more often than it has been operational since being attacked in September 2011, and anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are features rather than bugs of the Egyptian press and Egyptian social media. Yet none of this has actually put the peace treaty at risk or derailed the necessary cooperation on security issues between the two governments. Egyptians do not have to accept Israel in order to live and work with Israel.
Third, even states that fought Israel for decades and whose people still do not accept engagement or normalization with Israel are unwilling to allow their country to be a safe haven for terrorists simply so that they can continue to fight with their sworn Zionist enemy. It would be very easy for the Egyptians to allow the situation in the Sinai to fester in order to give jihadi groups a base of operations from which to target Israel, but not only would doing so risk an Israeli response that Egypt does not want, the Egyptian government recognized from the outset that such groups would eventually turn their fire on Egypt too. Even during the brief tenure of Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood president, relations were frostier than they had been but did not collapse, and the Morsi government took actions against Hamas that Hosni Mubarak had not, such as flooding the cross-border tunnels that the Palestinian group built from Gaza.
Finally, nothing is risk-free. Signing a treaty with Egypt was not guaranteed to bring lasting peace, and doing so even opened up Israel to a fair amount of security uncertainty given that it was losing its strategic depth in the Sinai and also came with new American military aid to the Egyptian government. Israel was putting its trust in Anwar Sadat, a leader who took the step of coming to Jerusalem to address the Knesset but who had also launched the 1973 Yom Kippur War. There was no history of Israeli-Egyptian cooperation upon which to build, and the treaty with Egypt initially provoked a backlash from other Arab states, dashing any hopes that there would be a domino effect. In short, there were many good arguments to pursue a peace treaty with Egypt, but it was never entirely cut and dry.
There are many strong arguments against pursuing a peace treaty with the Palestinians, most of them revolving around security but some of them focusing on issues such as acceptance of Israel and whether a treaty establishing a Palestinian state would only be the first capitulatory step toward an eventual attempt to drive the Jews into the sea. The peace treaty with Egypt demonstrates that these concerns can be overcome, and that even a cold peace between states that is not based on strong societal ties or mutual acceptance is still a useful outcome. And the fact is that while this would represent a manageable but not ideal situation, Israeli-Palestinian peace would likely look far different. The successful history of security cooperation between the IDF and the Palestinian Authority is an element that was non-existent between Israel and Egypt when the peace treaty was signed in 1979. Israelis and Palestinians have intertwined economies, much closer geographic proximity, and exponentially more people to people interaction than Israelis and Egyptian did or do now. At both the governmental and societal levels, there is every reason to expect warmer and more robust interactions arising out of an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord than what has resulted from the treaty with Egypt.
Nothing is ever guaranteed and no two situations are ever perfectly analogous. But just as it is foolish to dismiss outright the concerns of those who sincerely argue against a Palestinian state, it is foolish to dismiss outright the power of the Israel-Egypt model as a lasting and sustainable peace, even in the midst of anti-Zionism, anti-normalization, and continued and heartfelt enmity.