Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty 1979

We do not know what tidings you are bringing with you from your visit to our neighbour, Egypt, whether the dove that emerged from the Ark carries an olive branch in her mouth to signal that the waters have subsided so that people can put their feet on the ground once more.

So spoke President Yitzhak Navon when he formally greeted Jimmy Carter on the tarmac of Ben-Gurion airport in March 1979. The US President was on a mission to Egypt and Israel to remove any final obstacles to the signing of a peace treaty between the two countries.

No one knew whether Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem at the end of 1977 and the framework agreed at Camp David in September 1978 would actually produce an agreement.

It had been a tortuous process, marked by frustration and rebuke. Yet a peace treaty was finally signed in Washington on March 26 1979 — one that has held for 40 years despite a transient Muslim Brotherhood government in Cairo, Israeli invasions of Lebanon in 1982 and 2006 and repeated clashes between Israel and Hamas.

In Israel there were official displays of joy but there was also a quiet reluctance to believe that any peace would last.

Yehudi Menuhin played a Bach prelude in a thanksgiving ceremony in Jerusalem while Leonard Bernstein told army radio that he had a dream that ,“One day I shall conduct Aida near the pyramids with the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra and with the Egyptian ballet troupe.”

Was all this simply wishful thinking?

18 Knesset members voted against the proposed treaty amid determined dissent. In Hebron, Palestinians had protested by closing their shops in a self-imposed curfew while their Jewish neighbours in the satellite settlement of Kiryat Arba displayed their dissatisfaction to visiting journalists.

The peace treaty united both West Bank Jewish settler and Palestinian Islamist in opposition.

In essence, the question of Palestinian self-determination had been kicked into the long grass of future autonomy talks.

Even so, the settlers feared that returning territory to Egypt would be followed by the return of the West Bank to Arab control.

Mr Carter had told the Knesset that the Camp David framework was “the proper channel” to start resolving the Palestinian problem. For Sadat, it was “the crux and core of the conflict”.

Yet the mood in the nationalist camp in Israel was entirely different. Ideologically Prime Minister Menachem Begin was a believer in Judaea and Samaria, expanding Jewish settlement and defining Palestinian autonomy within restricted parameters.

Even Shimon Peres, the opposition leader, had been prevailed upon by hawkish elements to delete the phrase “the just rights of the Palestinians” from his Knesset speech.

Following the signing, Begin swiftly turned to the right to outmanoeuvre the far-right and quell disagreement within his own Herut movement. Indeed loyalists such as Moshe Arens and Yitzhak Shamir had not sided with Begin.

Demonstrators compared it to the Munich Agreement of 1938 and protested, sporting Chamberlainesque black umbrellas.

Unlike Begin, the two main architects of Camp David, Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan and Defence Minister Ezer Weizmann, viewed the retention of the West Bank in security terms rather than ideologically — and they resigned when they realised that Begin was not interested in making progress towards a resolution of the Palestinian question.

There were two frameworks for peace. The first, a bilateral one between Israel and Egypt, was trumpeted with the accompanying normalisation of relations.

The second was a broader framework for peace in the Middle East that made the Palestinian issue contingent on continuing negotiations — but it left the PLO out in the cold and allying itself with the radical Arab states.

Even King Hussein, nervously watching events from Jordan, opposed the peace treaty. Both the PLO and the Jordanians had to wait for the election of Yitzhak Rabin in 1992 before peace agreements were signed with Israel.

A by-product of the peace treaty was the freedom given to the remnant of Egyptian Jewry to express their solidarity with Israel and to visit their relatives in Tel Aviv.

Refusing to wait for permission from either the Israeli or Egyptian authorities, 70-year-old Leah Mandelbaum became the first Egyptian tourist to visit Israel. The surprised Israelis asked for her passport and she indignantly responded: “Egypt is my land and Israel is my people, so why do I need a passport?”

Sadat was assassinated in 1981 and Begin died in 1992. Only Mr Carter , 94, remains, still committed to the cause of peace.

This 40-year-old treaty, while partial and flawed, indicates what is possible if political will and moral courage are summoned and acted upon.

Jewish Chronicle 21 March 2019

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