Last Updated: Mon Oct 24, 2011 09:43 am (KSA) 06:43 am (GMT)

Peace treaty in times of revolution

Abdel Monem Said

Whenever there were Arab-Israeli peace negotiations, officials and observers in Israel, the US and even Europe would inevitably ask whether a peace agreement would survive a change in Arab leadership. The anxiety was not unjustified. There have always been Arab political forces opposed to the very idea of peace with Israel and that saw the conflict with that state not as a territorial/border dispute but as an existential clash. An Arab president or king may have sufficient "authority" to impose a peace on his people, by force if need be. However, the perpetuation of this authority was contingent upon his continued grip on power. If that were to weaken, or if he were overthrown by a coup or revolution, or if death, which spares not even president or king, struck, then one of the first victims of his demise could be the peace with Israel.

This supposition has hovered over every peace agreement. However, history has proven that it is not correct, that peace agreements with Israel can withstand changes in Arab leaderships. After Sadat was assassinated, his successor, Hosni Mubarak, kept Egyptian foreign policy on course. If the peace with Israel turned "cold" in the 1980s this was not because Sadat was gone but because Israel refused to withdraw from Taba, because it bombed the nuclear reactor in Iraq and because it invaded Lebanon. With the Madrid Peace Conference that led to the conclusion of the Oslo Accords, some warmth was restored to Egyptian-Israeli relations. The same applies to the Jordanian-Israeli peace agreement. That was unaffected by the death of King Hussein and the succession of his son, King Abdullah II. Nor did official Palestinian policy change significantly on the points of dispute and agreement with Israel with the transition from president Yasser Arafat to president Mahmoud Abbas. On the whole, Arab governments that were committed to the peace process remained so, even after major change.

Yet the wave of revolutions that has swept the Arab world has hurled the question to the fore again. The focus has been primarily trained on Cairo, not only because it is a central Arab power but also because it has long been the prime "agenda setter" on relations with Israel and it gave birth to the first peace treaty between Israel and an Arab state. In addition, relations between Cairo and Jerusalem were far from smooth even before Mubarak was overthrown. Netanyahu is a particularly difficult Israeli leader to deal with, to which testify his incessant attempts to obstruct the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Nor was the situation along the Egyptian- Gaza border helpful. The tunnels fed Gaza with more arms than it did food and medicine, while Al-Qaeda elements succeeded in infiltrating into the Sinai and destabilising the situation there, making it all the easier to take advantage of the revolution to sabotage the natural gas pipelines leading to Israel, Jordan and Syria and, on top of that, to destroy symbols of Egyptian sovereignty such as Arish police station.

The Egyptian revolution has remained ablaze in one way or another during the past months. The discovery of an alleged Israeli spy in its midst fanned the flames as it drew attention to the connection between disturbing political conditions and the protracted Arab-Israeli conflict. Then tensions flared up along the Egyptian-Palestinian and Israeli borders when an attack by a Palestinian militia unit against Israeli civilians in Eilat precipitated an Israeli cross-border raid that killed five Egyptian soldiers. As a result, the already flaming Tahrir Square emitted an angry flare that lapped the walls of the Israeli embassy, where a young revolutionary among the demonstrators scaled the building, seized the Israeli flag and burned it. Several days later, a second flare lashed out at the Israeli embassy, causing Egypt considerable embarrassment for this attack on a diplomatic mission, even if it was an Israeli one.

In short, the Egyptian-Israeli peace accord was now being put to the test, as so many had anticipated it would be since the moment the agreement was signed. Initially, it appeared that the treaty was at death's door and some were even seeing the spectre of impending war. However, once again developments proved that the matter is not so simple. The Israeli flag, after having been burned a second time, returned to its pole atop the embassy building and the people involved in the second embassy attack were arrested. Although the gas pipelines were blown up again, they were repaired and the flow of gas resumed. Moreover, with mutual Egyptian and Israeli agreement, the Egyptian military presence in the northern Sinai has been augmented even without amending the security cooperation protocol that is annexed to the peace agreement. Then came a greater surprise yet. After five years of futile efforts on the part of the former Egyptian regime, the current Egyptian government succeeded in securing the release of the Israeli soldier captured by Hamas, Gilad Shalit, in exchange for 1,027 Palestinians detained in Israel. The prisoner exchange was topped by another deal in which the alleged Israeli spy Ilan Grappel was swapped for 81 Egyptians who had been imprisoned in Israel for various reasons. We should add, here, that not only has the Egyptian military presence been intensified on the ground in the north Sinai, it has been supplemented, for the first time, by air force coverage -- to the accompaniment, moreover, of an official apology from Israeli Minister of Defence Ehud Barak for the deaths of the Egyptian soldiers. This is highly significant, especially given that Ankara has so far failed to secure such an apology from Israel for the deaths of the Turkish citizens killed by Israeli forces during their attempt to bring aid to the people of Gaza.

Clearly then, Egyptian-Israeli cooperation remains intact. How can we explain this when it is equally obvious that Egypt has changed totally and irreversibly, and that, while the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces may be in charge, there are other parties that have a say and it is no longer possible to ignore the mood of the Egyptian street? It is useful, here, to approach the question from another perspective. The fact that Egypt and Israel are neighbours creates a set of geopolitical laws that cannot be overlooked, regardless of revolutionary upheavals and regime changes. Common interests surface and prevail, in spite of the shifting outlooks and approaches of key players. It is no coincidence, for example, that Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal has become a permanent visitor to Cairo. In addition to geopolitical realities, other major factors come into play. Consider alone that Egypt is bound by a range of ties to the US and Europe, all of which are affected positively or negatively by the state of the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty and the fluctuations in temperature between Cairo and Israel.

Still, public opinion, as I mentioned above, remains a crucial, if not the most important factor. In this regard, therefore, a recent opinion poll conducted by Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies is instructive. Only four per cent of the respondents favour recourse to war for various reasons while seven per cent are for abolishing the peace treaty, 12 per cent for expelling the Israeli ambassador from Cairo, and 11 per cent for recalling the Egyptian ambassador from Israel. The majority of those polled -- 62 per cent -- would like to see the peace agreement to continue, but with amendments intended to enhance Egyptian security (and which are currently being reviewed). Another 23 per cent wants the peace treaty to remain exactly as it is for fear of renewed tension and conflict at a time when Egypt needs to rebuild itself amidst a host of other formidable challenges.

Can we conclude, therefore, that the peace treaty has succeeded in passing another test, one that was more difficult and complicated than ever? I believe we can.

The writer is a prominent Egyptian columnist. The article was published in al-Ahram Weekly on the Oct. 20-26 issue.

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