Israel's Missed Opportunity

The main achievement of the peace agreement with Egypt in 1979 was the quiet front on Israel's southern border, writes Daniel Friedman. But  Israel did not take advantage of the relatively quiet decades, and now has to face the possibility that that era is gone.

al-monitor Egypt President Anwar Sadat (L) head to head with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in 1977 when Sadat made his historic visit to Jerusalem, becoming the first Arab leader to visit the Jewish state since its birth in 1948. Photo by REUTERS/Stringer.

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peace treaty, peace, achievements, sadate, palestine, israel, idf, gaza, friedman, egypt, begin

Jul 6, 2012

The peace agreement with Egypt was signed in March 1979, during Menachem Begin’s first term of office as prime minister. In this agreement, Egypt under Anwar Sadat, achieved all the objectives it had set for itself before the Yom Kippur War.

For Israel, the price of this agreement was very high: Israel evacuated the Sinai Peninsula and a series of settlements it had regarded as permanent, and relinquished its basic [ideological] position of not returning to the 1967 borders. In exchange it received: a peace agreement with the largest and strongest of Arab nations; the demilitarization of the Sinai Peninsula; peace and quiet on its southern front that lasted for 33 years; and the dubious achievement of retaining the Gaza Strip. But Gaza quickly proved itself to be a hot potato, and this “achievement” has only caused Israel trials and tribulations — and the end is not in sight.

The main achievement [of the peace agreement] to date is the quiet in the South. Our question is, how was this quiet exploited [over the years] and did we derive maximum benefit from it?

Regarding internal matters: first and foremost, army service could have been shortened — service that had been lengthened from two-and-a-half years to three, after the Six Day War. For many long years, Israel was free of the danger of war on its southern border opposite the largest army of the Arab states, thus it could have reduced the size of its own army. But unfortunately, this change did not occur.

Regarding foreign affairs and defense, the peace agreement stipulated that solving the Palestinian problem should head Israel’s priority list. Once the Gaza Strip remained in Israel’s hands, the Palestinian issue also remained totally in its hands. Thus conditions were attached to the peace-agreement: the document signed at Camp David between Begin and Sadat mandated full autonomy for West Bank residents who would elect their own administration to replace the military government. When it signed the peace agreement, Egypt repeated — in the preamble to its signature — the “supplemental agreement regarding establishment of an autonomous self-governing authority in the West Bank of the Jordan River and in the Gaza Strip.” When Begin  [founder of Likud, the majority right wing political party] was not willing to create such an authority, Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan and the Defense Minister Ezer Weizman resigned from his government.

Simultaneously, the Begin government energetically continued to establish settlements in the territories; the locations of the settlements were sometimes determined with the objective of thwarting the establishment of a Palestinian state. Since then, colonization of the West Bank has continued together with Israel’s international and internal problems. Legal complications also arose: the West Bank territories were not annexed to Israel and do not constitute a part of it, but de facto Israel rules the state lands in the area and uses them for Jewish settlement.

The settlers are subject to Israeli law by virtue of decree of the military governor, though theoretically Israeli law should not apply to the region (because it is not part of the State of Israel). On the other hand, Jordanian law (in conjunction with decrees of the military governor) continues to apply to Palestinian residents. This created a situation whereby two populations live side by side, each side subject to a separate legal system. Moreover, Palestinian residents are subject to the military courts on various matters, while judgments on settlers are determined in civil courts. This is an unbearable situation allowing serious complaints to be brought against Israel in the international arena, and is also unreasonable from the Israeli internal viewpoint.

We do not see a diplomatic-political solution on the horizon and the chances of reaching a peace treaty with the Palestinians are also dim, since the Palestinians are splintered between Gaza under Hamas rule and the West Bank [under the PLO]. But the situation in the West Bank, most of which is under our rule, requires a solution. The current quiet should not fool us.

The international vista is also likely to cool off. The United States will certainly find a way to express its stance on the subject, after the elections in November. Egypt is also likely to take various steps. While it is hard to imagine Egypt renouncing the peace agreement just like that, it may claim that Israel did not carry out its part of the agreement regarding the Palestinians and thus react in kind. Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s new president, already hinted to such an approach.

As aforesaid, the need to come to an arrangement with the Palestinians is an internal Israeli necessity [as well]. It is advisable to take action in this direction irrespective of the anticipated pressures — pressures from the Arab and Palestinian side as well as from the international forum.

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