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Thirty Years to the First Arab-Israeli Peace Treaty

By Dr. Yoav J. Tenembaum (03/26/2009)

On the 26th of March 2009 thirty years ago Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty in Washington D.C. It was the first peace treaty signed by Israel with an Arab country. Sixteen months after President Anwar Sadat's visit to Jerusalem (19th of November, 1977), the most powerful Arab state agreed to recognize Israel officially and live in peace with it. It was the culmination of a difficult diplomatic process which began with an astonishing visit to Jerusalem by President Sadat, the first ever formal visit by any Arab leader to Israel.

Following Sadat's announcement that he would visit Jerusalem and speak before the Knesset in November 1977, Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was moved to say that not since German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck had there been a statesman of the stature of Sadat.

Sadat was the only Arab leader who truly understood the collective psychology of the Israeli people. In the eyes of Israelis, Sadat's visit transformed the Arab-Israeli conflict from an intractable dispute into a manageable disagreement. Not in vain did Sadat emphasize, while he was visiting Israel, that “90 percent of the Arab-Israeli conflict is psychological.” He exaggerated, but that is irrelevant. Sadat was not speaking as an objective observer. What is important is that Sadat acted as though the conflict was 90 percent psychological.

Sadat understood not only the collective psychology of Israelis as no other Arab leader did, but also the political culture of a democratic society in a way not matched by his Arab colleagues. He comprehended the singular importance of public opinion in the decision-making process of a democracy. He realized that by visiting Jerusalem he would capture the hearts of the people and thus greatly facilitate the achievement of his diplomatic objectives.

His aim was twofold. He knew that by capturing Israeli public opinion he would elicit the support of the people of the United States and their Congress. He would then pave the way for Egypt to get the Sinai Peninsula and a more comprehensive settlement, while creating the basis for a special relationship between Egypt and the United States. Sadat's thinking was as strategic in concept as it was creative in form.

Following the election of his Likud Party on the 17th of May, 1977, Israel's Prime Minister, Menahem Begin international reputation was that of a warmonger who might lead the Middle East into war by his extreme views.

He confounded his critics when he decided to appoint the former Labor defence minister, Moshe Dayan, to be his foreign minister. A well-known figure world-wide, Dayan was to grant Begin's government international legitimacy. From the outset Begin and Dayan set on exploring the possibility of a thaw with Egypt. A series of diplomatic moves, among them secret meetings held between Dayan and Egyptian officials, led ultimately to Sadat's visit to Jerusalem. Contrary to what critics contended, Begin never said he would not be ready to reach a territorial compromise with Egypt over the Sinai Peninsula. He even spoke in the same vein with regard to Syria and the Golan Heights.

The bone of contention was the future of the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) and the Gaza Strip. Neither Begin nor Dayan favored a territorial compromise over those territories. Dayan, for his part, spoke of a “functional compromise” that would entail neither Arab nor Israeli sovereignty—at least not on an exclusive basis. Thus, contrary to what was expected of him, following Begin decided not to extend Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip pending peace negotiations.

Following Sadat's visit to Jerusalem, Begin devised an Israeli peace plan which he presented both to US president, Jimmy Carter and to British prime minister, James Callaghan. In it, Begin agreed to recognize Egyptian sovereignty over the entire Sinai Peninsula and advanced an autonomy plan for the Palestinian Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza. This autonomous entity was to be bereft of any sovereign authority. As far as Begin was concerned, it was a “functional compromise” as originally advocated by Dayan. The dream of Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank and Gaza was effectively put in deep freeze.

Sadat had always contended that peace between Egypt and Israel, in any case only possible in future generations and not during his lifetime, would not be feasible unless Israel withdrew to the lines of the 4th of June 1967 on all three fronts. The final peace agreement, based on the Framework for Peace signed at Camp David, in September of 1978, reflected a change of positions by both Sadat and Begin. Egypt agreed to sign a peace treaty with Israel that did not entail a full Israeli withdrawal from all the territories captured during the Six Day War. The agreement did not wait for future generations of Egyptians to be signed, but was signed by Sadat himself.

As part of his consent to withdraw completely from the Sinai Peninsula, Begin agreed to dismantle the Israeli settlements in the area, something he vowed he would not do. Furthermore, a fully autonomous entity was to be established in the West-Bank and Gaza for an interim period of five years, following which negotiations were to be held aimed at determining the final status of the territories concerned.

The peace treaty between Egypt and Israel changed the strategic position of Israel in the area. Egypt was no longer the leader of the warring Arab coalition. Rather, with the years, it became a diplomatic bridge between Israel and the Arab world. The Egyptian-Israeli peace is a modest version of the Superpower détente of the early 1970s: The hostility harbored by the Egyptian elite towards Israel is still pronounced. Perhaps neither Sadat nor Begin imagined the peace to look as it does today. But their actions and the conceptual basis of their policies altered the strategic outlook of the Middle East more deeply than any other diplomatic process in the last sixty years.

Dr. Yoav J. Tenembaum lectures at the Diplomacy Program, University of Tel Aviv, Israel. His last two articles, "Foreign Policy and Learning from History”, and "The Right of Self-Determination – A Further Principle”, were published respectively in the International Affairs Forum and in American Diplomacy.

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