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Sunday, February 26, 2012

Israel and the elusive peace treaty

What’s next for Egypt, Israel and the elusive peace treaty?

By Dr. Nervana Mahmoud
The Camp David Accords, the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty brokered by President Jimmy Carter, survived 30  years under ousted president Hosni Mubarak. But the treaty was never popular amongst the people. Will it survive in the post-Mubarak era?

When Anwar Sadat signed the Camp David Peace Treaty in 1979, he probably did not foresee that he had only two years left to rule Egypt and that his successor Mubarak would rule the country for thirty long years after. It is probably also safe to say that the Arab Spring would never have entered his wildest imagination.

To his friends, Sadat was a wise leader who had done the best for his country, but to his foes he was a traitor who surrendered Egypt to the devil.

The controversy about Sadat was almost, though not completely, settled by his tragic death in 1981, but his treaty is still causing quite a stir in Egypt following the downfall of his successor Mubarak.
How did it reach that point?

Mubarak, a man who lacked charisma and vision, but had a deep desire to rule Egypt as long as possible, formulated a devious policy on Israel aiming to maintain the treaty without risking the fate of his predecessor.

In order to achieve this delicate balance, he declined to formally visit Israel so as to avoid the wrath of the Islamists. On the other hand, he established strong and occasionally secret channels with Israeli officials.

On the domestic front, he adopted a more sinister policy towards the country’s Islamists. A mixture of carrot and stick approaches: ruthlessly crushing them if they crossed the red line, while turning a blind eye to the growing xenophobia and even anti-Semitism in their teaching – as long as they behaved themselves.

The long oppressive reign of Mubarak had slowly reduced the Camp David Accords from a comprehensive peace treaty to a mere deal about security arrangements and financial aid, resented by the vast majority of Egyptians, from the Brotherhood to the belly dancers. Peace became a derogatory word, a kind of retro 70s style that is neither desirable nor acceptable.

On the other side, Israel welcomed Mubarak’s policy: it reduced 80 million Egyptians into a one-man nation. A wrong choice indeed, as the Arab Spring has brought the era of reliable authoritarianism to an end, along with leaders like Mubarak who put a lid his nation’s simmering problems. Israel invested in the lid and ignored the pot. Now the pot is wide open and it is at boiling point.

What‘s next?

The abuse of the treaty is bound to continue. If pseudo peace was Mubarak’s preferred choice, the newly emerged Islamist majority in Egypt prefers an ambiguous stalemate approach; a more hostile policy towards Israel, hostile enough to sever any remaining links with the “Zionists” without provoking a new war in the region.

Their approach is based on many considerations:

First, it is very popular: the toxic mix of inflammatory threats and rhetoric against the “Zionist” entity appeal to many in Egypt, from the ultra-conservative Salafis to the anarchists and leftist activists.

Second, ambiguity fits in well with the Islamist comfort zone. Without the obligations of peace or the commitments of war, Islamists can easily navigate their policies between the US and the West on one side and their traditional allies like Hamas on the other.

Third, and most importantly, the geopolitical reality of 2012 would prevent Israel from re-enacting the 1967 scenario. Sinai comes with strings attached: a major trap called the Gaza Strip. Israel cannot re-occupy Sinai (assuming it easily do so) without confronting Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza, and inheriting the 1.5 million Palestinian inhabitants cramped inside.

However, the Islamists should be careful with their game plan. Stalemate is not as easy as it looks, it can backfire badly:

-Stalemate creates uncertainty, which could damage the already ailing Egyptian economy and put off international investors.

-It could encourage Israel to wash its hands completely of any responsibility toward Gaza, forcing Egypt to deal with its economical and security challenges.  The recent electricity deal could be just the start.

-Israel’s response, particularly with any security breach from Sinai would be difficult to predict, but the possibility of Israel trying to partially annex parts of South Sinai (there are 4 security zones stated in the treaty, Zone C near the Israeli border being the most vulnerable) to secure its Red Sea shore and prevent infiltration from Gaza shouldn’t be dismissed.

In theory, Egypt may not lose much by adopting a stalemate approach, while Israel may gain some sympathy as result of it. However, both sides should calculate their next move carefully. In the current unpredictable climate, and the continuous deterioration of security in Sinai, tension can easily flare up with unimaginable consequences. Sadat’s peace has gone, and the war-free era may soon come to an end. Though a 1967 moment is unlikely, a modified new version is not far-fetched.

Nervana Mahmoud is a British-Egyptian anesthesiologist and a Middle East analyst. She blogs at Nervana and tweets at @nervana_1.  


Will said...

Sink a few ships in the entrance of the Suez canal at the mediterranean side. Watch the Egyptian economy go nuts from the costs to ship everything around Africa.
Respect the treaty or we'll do it again.

Alexander Münch said...

I did just that to a Russian Missile ship back in 1968 at the Firdan bridge (2 rotating halves) in Kantara!