If Egypt tears up its peace deal with Israel, why should Israel make a similar deal with the Palestinians?

Egypt's prime minister has just said the peace deal with Israel is "not sacred". This makes a deal with the Palestinians much less likely. Here's why.

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Ripping up peace deals?
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Miriam Shaviv
On 16 September 2011 13:40

Is there a silver lining to the rapid deterioration in Israeli relations with Egypt?

Many pundits seem to assume that the near-collapse of the peace treaty with Israel’s main Arab ally, after a mob attacked the Israeli embassy in Cairo and the Israeli ambassador had to flee the country, will force the Israeli public to recognise the urgent need for an agreement with the Palestinians.

After all, much of the current hostility seems to stem from continued Egyptian frustration at the Israeli blockade of Gaza and the lack of a Palestinian state. Fix the Palestinian issue and relations with Egypt, which are critical to Israel’s security and regional strategy, can revert back to normal.

Israelis will reach the same conclusion, many assume, following the deterioration of their country's relations with Turkey this summer, over Israel’s defence of the naval blockade; and as the UN rapidly moves towards recognition of a Palestinian state this month, with negotiations between the parties stalled.

In fact, the reverse is true.

The Egyptian public’s threat to renege on their peace agreement with Israel -- repeated most seriously by the Prime Minister Essam Sharaf himself, who said on Thursday that the Camp David accords were "not a sacred thing" -- is severely endangering the chances of ever reaching an equivalent treaty between Israel and the Palestinians.

If the Egyptians can turn their back on the agreement so casually, despite the fact that Israel paid for its peace by returning the Sinai Peninsula – Israelis are asking themselves - why should they strike a similar bargain with the Palestinians?

Is it really sensible to give up the West Bank if the other party can suddenly change its mind, 30 years down the line, about the cessation of hostilities? 

The Israeli-Egyptian agreement was signed in 1979, based on a formula called “land for peace”. In 1982, Israel returned the Sinai desert, a chunk of land three times larger than Israel’s size today, which it took possession of after being attacked by Egypt in the 1967 Six-Day War.

In return, it received “peace” – that is, a promise that Egypt would not attack again, with some minimum security guarantees, such as the limitation of Egyptian forces allowed near the Israeli border.

The peace was always a “cold” one, with contact taking place mainly through official channels. But it was always colder on the Egyptian side. Israelis warmed, to some extent, to Egypt, with tens of thousands of Israelis a year holidaying in the Sinai, but there was little traffic in the other direction.

Israelis were proud of the increasingly close cooperation between the two countries: the construction of a natural gas pipeline from Arish to Israel in 2008, for example, and the joint closure of the borders with Gaza, which stemmed from a shared concern over the territory's Islamicisation.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, by contrast, barely acknowledged the ties. Aware that the Egyptian people still detested Israel, he let the hatred fester rather than confronting it.

It was this hatred that erupted almost as soon as he left office, with the gas pipeline blown up several times; a terror attack on Israeli citizens near Eilat by Palestinian terrorists who had entered the country through the Sinai, in which at least three Egyptian citizens participated; and finally, the mass, violent demonstrations in front of the Israeli embassy, culminating on Saturday morning, when the eight security guards on site were almost lynched by a mob and the entire embassy staff had to be smuggled out of the country, save the deputy ambassador who agreed to be left behind. 

But most damaging were the public demands by the demonstrators to scrap the treaty entirely, and the irresponsible ruminations by senior politicians such as Arab League Secretary-General and former Egyptian foreign minister Nabil Elaraby, that the peace agreement was “not as sacred as the Koran”.

Curiously, no Egyptians have suggested returning the Sinai to Israel if the treaty does collapse.

But the problem for the Israelis is not merely the loss of their Egyptian alliance. Since the Egyptian treaty was signed, the final agreement between Israel and the Palestinians has always been conceived, by both parties, as following a similar model – “land for peace”.

Israel would give up land conquered in 1967, the exact contours of which would be determined in negotiations. In return, it would receive “peace” – a guarantee that the conflict had ended.

The Egyptian precedent has now shown the “land for peace” formula to be a sham: concrete sacrifices by Israel in return for promises of goodwill can, it appears, be reversed at any moment.

Critics might say that this is all academic anyway, as Israeli-Palestinian negotiations – which will have to resume at some point even if Palestine is recognised as a state by the United Nations later in September -- have been paralysed for years.

But this is largely because the Palestinians refuse to return to the negotiating table without preconditions, and Israelis do not believe that the Palestinians currently have genuine peaceful intentions.

Poll after poll shows that in principle, Israelis have been willing to give up land for peace, provided the peace is genuine. Up until now, that is.

The reckless Egyptians demonstrators, and the new Egyptian rulers who have allowed them to riot out of control, may have dealt the peace process its final death knell.

Miriam Shaviv is a columnist for the Jewish Chronicle in the UK

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