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Copyright © 2019 The American Israel Public Affairs Committee

The Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty, 40 Years On: Providing Mutual Peace and Security, Heralding Broad

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat (left), U.S. President Jimmy Carter (center), and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin (right) clasp hands on the north lawn of the White House as they finish signing the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel on March 26, 1979. (AP Photo/Bob Daugherty, File)

“No more wars, no more bloodshed. Peace unto you. Shalom, Salaam, forever.”        —Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, treaty signing ceremony, March 26, 1979

“Let there be no more wars and bloodshed between Arabs and Israelis.” —Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, treaty signing ceremony, March 26, 1979

“During the past 30 years, Israel and Egypt have waged war. But for the past 16 months, these same two great nations have waged peace. Today we celebrate a victory—not of a bloody military campaign, but of an inspiring peace campaign. Two leaders who will loom large in the history of nations, President Anwar al-Sadat and Prime Minister Menachem Begin, have conducted this campaign with all the courage, tenacity, brilliance, and inspiration of any generals who have ever led men and machines into the field of battle.” —U.S. President Jimmy Carter, treaty signing ceremony, March 26, 1979

On March 26, 1979, less than six years after waging a bloody war against Israel, President Anwar Sadat of Egypt met with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to sign a peace treaty brokered by U.S. President Jimmy Carter. It was the first peace agreement Israel had signed with any Arab country and has survived several major geopolitical crises. Building on the relationship built by the treaty, Egypt and Israel maintain close military and intelligence cooperation in the Sinai and have recently concluded a major natural gas deal.

Beyond the direct benefits to the two signatories, the peace treaty has positively affected Israel’s relations with its other Arab neighbors, none of which has engaged in war with Israel since the treaty was signed. Israel’s Oslo Accords with the Palestinians; peace treaty with Jordan; and multiple ties with Gulf Arab nations and North African Arab countries—none of these would have been possible without the precedent of Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous and powerful nation, signing a peace agreement with Israel.

The Peace Treaty: Product of Exceptional Leadership

The peace treaty would not have come into being without the opportune coincidence of extraordinary leaders in all three relevant countries: Israel, Egypt and the United States. To achieve peace, Prime Minister Begin made the most tangible concession: Bucking fierce domestic opposition, he agreed to return to Egypt the entire Sinai Peninsula, evacuating 10,000 settlers, abandoning oil fields Israel itself had discovered and developed, and relinquishing two major airbases. President Sadat risked his life in making peace with Israel; he was assassinated less than three years later. And President Carter exerted powerful leadership in cajoling Begin and Sadat into sealing the deal, expending long periods of time and prodigious efforts in shuttling between the two leaders and engaging them on every detail of the complex negotiations. All three leaders were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

The Road to Peace

The first overt move in the developments that led to the conclusion of the peace treaty was President Sadat’s dramatic and historic flight to Israel on Nov. 19, 1977. No one who watched Sadat step off his plane at Ben-Gurion Airport and shake hands with Prime Minister Begin, Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan, Defense Minister Ezer Weizman, former Prime Minister Golda Meir, former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and General Ariel Sharon will ever forget that incredible moment. Sadat then went on to Jerusalem to deliver a historic speech at the Knesset.

But this astonishing event did not come out of nowhere. In July 1977, Prime Minister Begin authorized the transmission to Egypt through the King of Morocco of an actionable Israeli intelligence report that Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi had set in motion a plot to assassinate President Sadat. When Egyptian intelligence captured the plotters and confirmed the report’s veracity, the grateful Sadat authorized a secret meeting in Morocco two months later between Egyptian Deputy Prime Minister Hassan Tohami and Israeli Foreign Minister Dayan. At the meeting, Dayan agreed in principle to return the Sinai to Egypt in return for peace.

On Oct. 1, the United States—which was unaware of the meeting—signed a joint declaration with the Soviet Union on Middle East policy, angering both Israel and Egypt, which objected to a renewed Soviet role in the region. Sadat decided to work directly with the Israelis. He declared on Nov. 9, “I am ready to go to the Israeli parliament itself and discuss peace with them.” Ten days later, he was on his way to Israel. President Carter subsequently abandoned the Soviet track and did all he could to promote Egyptian-Israeli peace talks.

Following Sadat’s dramatic trip to Israel, intensive peace talks were held between the parties, but they soon stalled. The main reason: Sadat insisted that besides returning the Sinai to Egypt, Israel would have to provide some form of self-determination to the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, immensely complicating the negotiations. This is where Carter came in. After realizing that the two parties were unable to reach agreement on their own, he invited Begin and Sadat to a summit in Camp David, Maryland, on September 5, 1978. At Camp David, Carter relentlessly pressed the two sides toward an agreement. On Sept. 17, Carter presided over a signing ceremony of the Camp David Accords at the White House between Begin and Sadat.

The accords consisted of two separate agreements: A Framework for Peace in the Middle East and A Framework for the Conclusion of a Peace Treaty between Egypt and Israel. The first framework envisaged Palestinian self-government in the territories; the second—a full Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.

Although Egypt and Israel continued to conduct negotiations on Palestinian self-government for many months, they could not finalize the agreement because of Palestinian objections. It took another 15 years for such an agreement to be reached—in Oslo—between Israel and the Palestinians; it closely resembled the rejected 1978 Framework for Peace in the Middle East.

Egyptian-Israeli negotiations for a full peace treaty commenced—but stalled as well. In early March 1979, Carter made his move. In six days of shuttling between Jerusalem and Cairo, he managed to persuade Begin and Sadat to agree on the text of an agreement. A second signing ceremony—this time of a full-fledged peace treaty—was held at the White House on March 26, 1979.

The peace treaty called for mutual recognition and exchange of ambassadors, cessation of the state of war that had existed since Israel’s 1948 Declaration of Independence, normalization of relations, and a complete Israeli withdrawal of armed forces and civilians from the Sinai, which Israel had captured during the 1967 Six-Day War. Egypt agreed to leave the area largely demilitarized. The agreement also provided for the free passage of Israeli ships through the Suez Canal, and recognition of the Gulf of Eilat as an international waterway. Carter sweetened the deal by committing to the provision of billions of dollars in U.S. aid to both parties.

Despite Severe Challenges, the Peace Treaty Has Held

Forty years after the signing of the peace treaty, it is evident that all its provisions have been implemented, except for Egypt’s refusal to fully normalize relations with Israel. Trade, tourism, cultural ties and all human contacts are strictly limited. Anti-Israel incitement is still prevalent in the Egyptian media. Consequently, the Egypt-Israel relationship has often been termed a “cold peace.”

Israel has fully implemented its side of the bargain. On April 26, 1982, it completed the withdrawal from the Sinai of all its armed forces and civilians. Egypt has kept the peace treaty in force; maintained full diplomatic relations; and continues to allow free Israeli passage through the Suez Canal and the Gulf of Eilat.

Over the years, the peace treaty has weathered several major crises, some of which seemed on the verge of derailing it. Many feared the treaty would not survive the October 1981 assassination of President Sadat. It did. His successor, President Hosni Mubarak, maintained it during his 30-year reign. Egypt recalled its ambassador from Israel for long, but ultimately temporary, periods—from 1982 to 1988 over the first Lebanon war, and from 2000 to 2005 over the second intifada. During the turmoil in 2011 following the toppling of President Mubarak, thousands of rioters surged into the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, ransacked its contents and threatened its personnel. At the last moment, Egyptian security forces rescued besieged Israeli security officers.

Many feared for the peace treaty when Mohamed Morsi, leader of the anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist Muslim Brotherhood, served as President of Egypt from 2012 to 2013. Despite his extremely negative attitude toward Israel, Morsi maintained the peace treaty—reportedly under pressure from the Egyptian Army.

Despite these challenges, security cooperation between Egypt and Israel is thriving. In a television interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes” in January 2019, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi praised the intimate security cooperation with Israel in the Sinai against jihadist forces. When asked whether the cooperation was the “deepest and closest” that Egypt has had with Israel, al-Sisi responded: “That is correct.” He explained that “the Air Force must sometimes move to the Israeli side, so we have broad coordination with Israel.” Indeed, Egyptian and Israeli armed forces are closely coordinating their efforts to destroy their common foe in the Sinai, an affiliate of the Islamic State. Israel has approved Egyptian requests to bring into the Sinai larger and better-equipped armed forces than those stipulated in the peace treaty.

Also, last September major energy companies announced a landmark $15 billion natural gas export deal from Israel to Egypt to begin in 2019. “The Ministry welcomes this new step by the private companies responsible for the commercial project’s implementation,” an Egyptian Ministry of Petroleum spokesman said in a statement.

Broader Arab-Israeli Contacts Follow the Peace Treaty

Initial Arab reactions to the peace treaty were extremely negative. Seventeen Arab nations severed diplomatic ties with Cairo. Egypt was suspended from the Arab League, and the League’s headquarters were moved from Cairo to Tunis. But most Arab states restored diplomatic relations with Cairo during the 1980s; Egypt’s League membership was restored in 1989 and the League’s headquarters were returned to Cairo a year later.

A dramatic shift occurred in the 1990s and is still ongoing. Once Egypt was reinstated as a leading Arab state, the peace treaty became a validating precedent for other Arab players wishing—each for their own reasons—to deal with Israel. As the most populous and powerful Arab state, only Egypt could have broken the decades-long taboo on making contacts and establishing relations with Israel.

The stage was now set for other Arab countries to deal openly with Israel. In October 1991, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation joined Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir at the U.S.-sponsored Madrid Peace Conference.

To sign the Oslo Accords with Israel in 1993, the PLO sought—and received—Egyptian blessing. The accords added to the Egyptian precedent Palestinian validation for such relations, starting a chain reaction of increasing Arab-Israeli ties that is still building despite several setbacks.

In October 1994, Jordan became the second Arab state to sign a full peace treaty with Israel; given its small size and relative weakness, Jordan could not have been the first. Like its Egyptian-Israeli predecessor, the Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty has overcome several crises and is still in force, to the benefit of both parties and the region.

From 1994 to 2008, Syria and Israel conducted intermittent, publicly announced peace talks based on the Madrid Conference framework.

Morocco and Israel opened liaison offices in late 1994; but Morocco closed the offices at the beginning of the second intifada in October 2000.

Also in late 1994, Israel’s Minister for the Environment took part in regional discussions on environmental issues and met with Bahrain’s foreign minister.

In December 1994, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin traveled to Oman. In November 1995, Omani foreign minister Yusuf Ibn Alawi visited Jerusalem. In January 1996, Israel and Oman opened trade representative offices. Although the Israeli representative office was closed in October 2000, Oman’s government quietly encouraged Israeli diplomats to stay.

In April 1996, Israel opened a trade office in Doha, following a visit by Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres. In November 2000, Qatar closed the office, also due to the start of the second intifada.

In April-May 1996, Israel and Tunisia opened interest offices in both countries. In October 2000, Tunis closed the offices.

Following the end of the second intifada and Israel’s disengagement from Gaza in 2005, high-level officials from three Arab Gulf nations met with Israeli officials.

In January 2007, Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres paid a high-profile visit to Doha, Qatar. In April 2008, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni went to Doha, where she met with the Qatari prime minister.

In October 2007, Bahrain’s foreign minister met with his Israeli counterpart.

In April 2008, Oman’s foreign minister met with his Israeli counterpart during their visit to Qatar.

During the last few years, a new wave of Arab contacts with Israel ensued. Although these new contacts occurred decades after the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty and were largely motivated by mutual concerns over regional Iranian aggression, they could not have taken place if Egypt had not paved the way for such contacts when it signed the 1979 peace treaty.

In a June 2015 public meeting in Washington, Anwar Eshki, a retired major general in the Saudi armed forces, and Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador, discussed “their common interests in opposing Iran.”

In November 2017, Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said that Israel had covert contacts with Saudi Arabia amid common concerns over Iran. That was the first public admission of cooperation between the two countries by a senior Israeli official.

And in March 2018, Saudi Arabia opened its airspace for the first time to commercial flights to Israel with the inauguration of an Air India route between New Delhi and Tel Aviv.

In November 2015, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) granted Israel permission to open a diplomatic-level mission to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) in Abu Dhabi, its first openly established representative office on UAE territory.

In January 2016, Israel’s energy minister visited IRENA’s Abu Dhabi headquarters. In October 2018, Israel’s Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev and Communications Minister Ayoub Kara visited the UAE. Israel’s national anthem was played at a judo tournament in Abu Dhabi after one of its athletes won gold—believed to be the first time the anthem has been played publicly in an Arab Gulf state.

In March 2019, UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash said, “Many, many years ago, when there was an Arab decision not to have contact with Israel, that was a very, very wrong decision looking back.” He predicted increased contacts between Israel and Arab states, as well as a “strategic shift” in ties he said should focus on “progress on the peace front” between Israel and the Palestinians. Fighter pilots from Israel and the UAE flew together as part of a military exercise held in Greece from April 1-12, 2019. Already in August 2016, the two countries participated in the Red Flag exercise hosted by the U.S. Air Force in Nevada. Also in April 2019, Israel’s Foreign Ministry announced Israel will take part in the 2020 World Expo in the UAE city of Dubai. The Israeli Foreign Ministry said it welcomed “the opportunity to share our spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship and to present Israeli innovations and trailblazing technology in various fields such as water, medicine and information technology.”

In May 2018, Bahrain’s foreign minister said on social media that “Israel has the right to defend itself due to Iran’s violation of the status-quo in the region.” Israel sent a delegation to the annual UNESCO conference in Bahrain in June 2018. In December 2018, Bahrain’s foreign minister voiced support for Israel’s operation to expose and destroy Hezbollah’s cross-border tunnels, writing on Twitter: “Is Terrorist Hezbollah’s digging of the tunnels under Lebanon’s border not a flagrant threat to Lebanon’s stability, which it shares responsibility for? Who bears responsibility when neighboring countries take upon themselves to eliminate the threat they face?” For the first time, several Israeli speakers are to appear at the Global Entrepreneurship Congress in Manama, Bahrain’s capital, according to the forum’s website.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu conducted an official visit to Oman with Mossad Director Yossi Cohen in October 2018 at the invitation of Sultan Qaboos bin Said, Oman’s ruler. The Omanis televised portions of the visit. Israel announced that Oman will open its airspace to Israel’s national airline, El Al. On April 6, Oman’s foreign minister gave an interview to an Israeli media outlet, The Times of Israel. He noted that nothing was preventing Israeli officials from visiting Oman or vice versa. “We believe Israel has an important role to undertake in bringing about stability in the region. In that framework, we are communicating with Israel and the Israeli government,” he said.

As many as 45,000 Israeli tourists visit Morocco each year. Morocco openly imports and exports goods to Israel. Israeli farmers have established farms in Morocco and are growing fruits and vegetables there. Cultural, civil society and student delegations are exchanged. Israeli delegations have visited Morocco in recent years on various occasions such as the International Climate Conference held in November 2016 in Marrakech. The Mediterranean Parliamentary Assembly held in the Moroccan Parliament in Rabat in October 2017 included Israeli parliamentarians. Israeli judokas participated in the Judo Grand Prix, held in Morocco in March 2018 and again in March 2019. The Israeli flag was hoisted twice after two Israeli judokas won bronze medals in the 2019 competition.

Perhaps most indicative of the new Arab-Israeli contacts, Vice President Mike Pence said at the U.S.-convened conference in Warsaw in February, “Tonight I believe we are beginning a new era, with Prime Minister Netanyahu from the State of Israel, with leaders from Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, all breaking bread together, and later in this conference sharing honest perspectives on the challenges facing the area.” Netanyahu also met with the Omani foreign minister earlier in the day and shared a stage with the Arab officials during a group photo.

The Way Forward: The U.S. Should Continue to Foster Arab-Israeli Ties

Egypt’s 1979 ground-breaking peace treaty with Israel has not only provided peace and security for both countries, but also shattered the post-Six-Day-War Arab consensus on the “Three No’s”: no negotiations, no recognition, and no peace with Israel. After a decade of ostracizing Egypt for its “betrayal” of the Arab cause, the Arab states restored Egypt to its previous position of Arab leadership and used the precedent of its peace treaty to make their own contacts with Israel, which are still ongoing.

Both the bilateral Egyptian-Israeli relationship and the broader Arab-Israeli contacts that the peace treaty spawned continue to promote American interests.

Given Egypt’s weight in the Arab world, Egyptian-Israeli peace is the main anchor of regional stability. It has prevented major wars between Israel and its neighboring states and has enabled Egypt to join Israel as a major U.S. ally. American assistance to both countries has firmed up the alliance and will continue to do so as long as it lasts.

The rapidly growing contacts between Israel and Arab Gulf nations are essential for maintaining a common front against regional aggression by Iran, America’s most dangerous enemy in the region and beyond. As an additional bonus, these contacts could ultimately help achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Whatever the United States can do to encourage Arab nations to further expand these contacts will help promote these important American goals.

Type: Near-East-Report Near East Report