Commentary: Half a dozen charges
Those who criticise the Egypt-Israel peace treaty fail to see its nuanced importance or produce credible counter-arguments against it, writes Abdel-Moneim Said*
Today -- 26 March -- marks the 30th anniversary of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. It is doubtful whether a single event has stirred as much controversy among Egyptians and Arabs as this accord. Nor do I think that contention over this matter will subside anytime soon. As long as the Arab-Israeli conflict continues, points of view will remain poles apart with the distance between them expanding every time the conflict plunges into another round of bloodshed. Still, one finds it necessary to "liberate" the controversy for the sake of truth and history, and for the sake of God, above all. For the controversy has been perpetually surrounded by the greatest quantity of confusion, deception and tendentiousness, with the effect all this has on policies and their exorbitant toll in money and blood. Due to the restrictions of space, I would like to confine myself here to a brief discussion of six common accusations levelled at the peace treaty, which I believe merit the consideration of public opinion and, perhaps more importantly, politicians who still have to make tough choices between options, the best of which seem bitter.
The first accusation levelled against the peace treaty is that it has achieved nothing. The charge is uttered with a curious automaticity, as though the speaker has no idea that the 61,000 square kilometre Sinai Peninsula, which is three times the size of Israel and 90 per cent of the territories Israel occupied in 1967, was liberated through this treaty. No less important, the treaty laid the foundations for subsequent negotiations with the occupied Arab parties by establishing a "framework" for resolving the Palestinian cause. This framework eventually led to the Oslo Accords, which brought into being the first Palestinian self-governing authority in the modern history of Palestine. In addition, the treaty, which was based on the Camp David Accords that preceded it, states that the precedents it set would be applied to all other occupied Arab territories, which is precisely what occurred in the Jordanian-Israeli Peace Treaty that liberated Jordan's occupied territories. Returning to the Sinai, its liberation from foreign hands was not only a matter of principle and honour. The peninsula, with its oil, tourism potential and geo-economic importance, has enormous economic value, which we have hardly begun to exploit.
The second accusation follows immediately after one exposes the absurdity of the first. It is posed as a question: If the realisation of prosperity is such a major justification for the treaty, where is the promised relief from Egypt's economic misery? The answer comes in two parts. First, one has to ask what the economic costs to Egypt would have been had there not been a treaty. Given that Egypt could not possibly have allowed the occupation to persist or that the government could not have continued indefinitely to tell the Egyptian people that it was waiting for the right moment to wage the liberation battle, Egypt would have continued to fight a war at least once a decade until it regained its stolen land. Imagine our country in an ongoing state of war over the past 30 years and the toll this would have taken on its economic, social and political structures. Second, the development process in any country is contingent upon its regional environment. Conditions conducive to development are a state of peace combined with the ability of a country's people to build and to achieve prosperity through the application of sound economic thinking and hard work. Over the past 30 years peace has prevailed and with assiduous work the Egyptian people rebuilt the three Suez Canal cities that had been destroyed by the war and restored two million refugees to their homes. However, sound economy has not always prevailed; we clung to central planning and a cumbersome and underproductive public sector for much longer than we should have. Even so, all economic and social indicators show that the progress we made during the past three decades far outstripped any previous records. Never before in our history has the average life expectancy of the Egyptian people been 72 years, or has the literacy rate reached 72 per cent, or has the infant mortality rate been so low, or have Egyptians inhabited more than six per cent of their land. The Egyptians may not have achieved prosperity and they might not have erected granite statues and opera houses in all villages and hamlets, as Abdel-Halim Hafez melodically wished at a time when the literacy rate was only 25 per cent. But they are certainly much better off than in any previous era and than they would have been if their country were still in a state of war.
The third accusation against the treaty is that it is dangerously flawed in that it restricts Egyptian sovereignty over parts of the Sinai. First, Israel is bound under the treaty by similar restrictions. Second, the restrictions in the agreement stem from late president Gamal Abdel-Nasser's agreement to UN Resolution 242 that calls for restricted arms areas and demilitarised zones. The principle was not applied only to Egypt, but also to the Jordanian front in accordance with the Jordanian-Israeli Peace Treaty. It was also applied to the Syrian front in accordance with the disengagement treaty signed following the 1973 War and, more importantly, in every subsequent phase of Syrian-Israeli negotiations. Yet for some obscure reason the people who level the accusation against the Egyptian- Israeli Peace Treaty make no mention of the arms restrictions that apply to Syria along the Golan front. Third, the enormous advances in military technology and mobile defence mechanisms, especially in the field of missilery, greatly reduce the significance of the restrictions now that the Israeli interior could come under severe attack in the event of war.
The fourth accusation alleges that the treaty has failed to prevent Israeli aggression, or as someone put it, "the Israelis' race to expand territorially and change realities on the ground". The accusation is not without truth, but not fully accurate. Syria, for example, which has not concluded a peace treaty, has been unable to prevent the Israelis from expanding into and constructing settlements on the Golan Heights. The Lebanese front has been a constant arena for Israeli belligerency, which brought several invasions and the continued occupation of the Shebaa Farms. The process of Israeli expansion and entrenchment has only occurred in areas that have refused to accompany Egypt on the path to peace. Egyptian and Jordanian territories have been rescued from this process, first by war and then through the conclusion of peace treaties. Indeed, the wise and strategic management of the conflict with Israel brought the first major setback to the empire that Israel tried to establish from the Suez Canal to the Golan in 1967.
According to the fifth charge, the peace agreement embodied a style of managing the conflict with Israel that conflicted with the duty of armed resistance. Now, the fact is that the proponents of peace and negotiations -- Egypt above all -- have never rejected the right to resist foreign aggression and occupation. From the purely historical standpoint, Egypt was not only the party that sacrificed most in the struggle against Israel, it was also the one that inflicted the greatest damage upon Israel. In the history of Arab resistance against Israel, whether by means of war, popular uprising, suicide bombings or terrorist acts, Israel sustained no losses as extensive as those incurred in the 1973 War or in any of its wars with Egypt before that. The issue, here, should not be resistance versus settlement, but rather how to best wield the arts of diplomacy, war, politics and propaganda towards the realisation of a specific aim, which is the liberation of occupied Arab territory. It has been proven without a shadow of a doubt that the Egyptian course of negotiation leading to a peace treaty was the most successful in this regard. More importantly, while Egypt has been freed from the shame of foreign occupation, the proponents of the other course remain without negotiations, without a settlement and, indeed, without resistance.
The last charge against the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty that I would like to address here is that which maintains that it turned Egypt into a US dependency. The contention could only come from someone who is not quite mentally stable, or that has never read history, or that does not know the true nature of Egypt, the Egyptian people and the Egyptian government. Clearly, no rational person would fail to take the world's sole superpower into account. But all that country's economic and political clout has not prevented Egypt from casting its vote contrary to that of the US in 83 per cent of issues that came to a vote in the UN (compare this to Israel's record of voting with the US in 87 per cent of the cases). History is full of instances of Egypt's ability to stand firm in the face of US demands. Cairo refused to cooperate with the American attack against Libya in the 1980s and it refused to exert pressure on the Palestinians during the negotiations that took place in the 1990s. Indeed, Egypt, which signed a peace agreement with Israel, has been the foremost obstacle to the rush to normalisation with the Hebrew state, keeping normalisation as a major card in the negotiating process between the Arabs and Israel, in perpetual defiance of Washington's wishes. Nor is it a secret that all the "advice" given by Washington regarding domestic change was not heeded. In fact, those who hold that Egypt is a US dependency would do well to study the entire chapter of the past eight years when Cairo was at constant loggerheads with the Bush administration. Moreover, even then Egypt remained the largest recipient of arms and money from Washington apart from Israel. This was the product of wisdom and skill, which would be useful topics for further discussion on another occasion.
* The writer is director of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.