Next week, Egyptian President Sisi will arrive in Washington for a critical meeting with President Donald Trump. The meeting is considered a preparatory step towards the administration’s rollout of its peace plan for Israel and the Palestinians, which Trump has dubbed, “the deal of the century.”
The deal is critical to Sisi, who is seeking U.S. support for his bid to amend Egypt’s constitution in a manner that will allow him to lead the country indefinitely. It is critical to prospects of security and lasting peace in the Middle East as well. To understand why, it is worth considering an event that occurred forty years ago last week.
Last week marked the 40th anniversary of the signing of the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt on March 26, 1979. In Israel, the commemorations of the event were modest and mainly limited to university seminars.
In Egypt, the peace deal’s anniversary was ignored.
On the face of it, the absence of official commemorations in either Israel or Egypt is strange. The Egyptian-Israeli peace has long been touted as a watershed event — just as important as, if not more important than, the Islamic revolution in Iran that occurred a month before the peace was concluded.
Until the Khomeinst revolution, Iran had been Israel’s strategic ally and America’s strongest ally in the Islamic world. The revolution transformed Iran into their most fanatical enemy. By the same token, until it concluded its peace treaty with Israel, Egypt was Israel’s worst enemy. It had also served as the Soviet Union’s most powerful Cold War ally against the U.S. in the Middle East.
By making peace with Israel, then-Egyptian President Anwar Sadat ended Egypt’s state of war with Israel and transformed Egypt into the pillar of America’s alliance system in the Arab world.
Moreover, at the time, the peace treaty Egypt concluded with Israel was viewed as the basis for a wider regional peace between Israel and all of its Arab neighbors.
Forty years later, Iran continues to be the foremost foe facing America and Israel. But the promise of peace between Israel and the Arab world that Sadat seemed to carry in his suit pocket at the time disappeared. According to survey data, the Egyptian people hate Israel and Jews more than the Iranian people do.
True, Israel has close strategic relations with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah A-Sisi’s regime. According to Israeli sources, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli security services were instrumental in facilitating Sisi’s seizure of power from the Muslim Brotherhood regime of then-Egyptian President Mohamad Morsi in 2013. Israel went to great lengths to win U.S. and international support for the Sisi regime. Israel has also plays a major role in assisting the Sisi regime fight Islamic State terror forces in the Sinai peninsula.
On the other hand, aside from a few partnership and business deals between Israeli business moguls and people at the highest levels of the Egyptian state, there are no real commercial ties between Israelis and Egyptians.
Tourism from Egypt to Israel is all but non-existent. This owes in large part to the Egyptian government’s policy, which requires Egyptian citizens who wish to travel to Israel to receive permission for their travel from the Egyptian government first. In most cases, the requests are denied, and Egyptians who request to travel to Israel incur significant professional and social costs for their action.
Israelis are also not eager to visit Egypt. Egypt’s endemic antisemitism makes the prospect of terrorism palpable. In 1985 and 1990, Israeli tourists in Egypt were deliberately targeted and massacred by Egyptian terrorists. The attacker in 1985 was an Egyptian soldier. Other Egyptian security forces who arrived at the scene denied medical assistance to the wounded, causing the victims, including children, to bleed to death.
These attacks, Egypt’s endemic hatred of Jews, and the constant threat of ISIS terror attacks against tourists in the Sinai have deterred most Israelis from travelling to Egyptian territory.
Egypt’s rejection of normalized relations with Israel stands at the base of Israel’s continued concern over Egypt. During Israel’s current elections campaign, those concerns were thrust into the limelight. In late March, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s chief political rivals accused him of committing treason for not objecting to Germany’s decision to sell submarines to Egypt in 2015. The allegations themselves are absurd. But the fact they were made demonstrated how concerned Israelis remain about the potential threat of renewed Egyptian aggression.
Major General Gershon Hacohen, a former commander of the Israel Defense Force’s war colleges, argues that the peace treaty exacerbated Israel’s security burden along its southern border.
“We fielded two divisions in the south before the peace. We field two divisions in the south today – one for Gaza and the other for Egypt,” he told Breitbart News.
And despite the fact that the size of the force is identical on paper, practically speaking, it has grown.
Hacohen explained, “Before the peace, we fielded armored divisions. An armored brigade is comprised of just 450 soldiers. Today we have infantry divisions. Just a battalion of infantry has 450 soldiers. So the manpower requirements to defend against Egypt are even higher than they were before we concluded the peace deal with Sadat.”
Deploying forces along the border is just part of the security burden Egypt poses for Israel. There is also static border protection, both along the border with Egypt and along the border with Gaza.
As Hacohen noted, “We spent billions of shekels to build the border fence to prevent infiltrations from Egypt. And we are currently executing a multi-billion shekel operation to construct a subterranean border wall to prevent tunneling activities from Gaza. Whatever you want to say about the nature of the peace with Egypt, we certainly do not view the border as a peaceful frontier.”
The connection between Egypt and the Gaza Strip is more than geography.
As Israeli military affairs commentator Alon Ben David wrote recently in the Hebrew-language Israeli newspaper Maariv, the humanitarian situation in Gaza is heartbreaking. Hamas has used all of Gaza’s resources to build its war machine against Israel while destroying Gaza’s natural resources. There is effectively no potable water in Gaza. There are no economic opportunities in Gaza. Unemployment is endemic. While Israel places no restrictions on the importation of non-military materiel to Gaza, Gazans lack the funds to purchase food and other vital commodities.
The situation has grown so desperate that in recent weeks, Gazans risked their lives to protest against Hamas, only to be violently suppressed.
It is the desperation of the residents of Gaza that enables Hamas to draw thousands to the border with Israel to serve as human shields and fodder for its snipers. Ben David wrote that Hamas gives chocolate to participants and pays the wounded anywhere from 15 and 60 dollars, depending on the severity of their injuries.
Last week, IDF forces at the Gaza border apprehended two eight-year-old boys armed with knives who infiltrated Israel from Gaza. The children were returned home. They told the Israeli soldiers that they wanted to be sent to prison. As Ben David explained, Palestinians infiltrate Israel with knives so that they can go to prison, where they will be fed, given clean water, and provided with showers and beds.
The only long-term solution to the security and humanitarian threat posed by Hamas-ruled Gaza is for Egypt to permit Gazans to work in northern Sinai. Although Egypt has recently allowed a limited number of Gazans to cross into its territory, the border remains largely sealed.
Egypt’s actions are motivated by both practical and strategic considerations. The practical considerations can be addressed easily. The strategic rationale for Egypt’s behavior is the root of Gaza’s permanent distress and the reason Egypt’s peace with Israel is of such limited strategic significance.
In a recent article in Israel Hayom, Hacohen explained that since ancient times, Gaza has never been able to support itself in isolation from an external commercial and population hub. In the 1967 Six Day War, Israel took control of the Sinai Peninsula and the adjacent Gaza Strip from Egypt. The two operated as a unitary economic, military and sociological unit.
In the framework of the peace negotiations, Israel accepted Egypt’s demand to restore Egyptian control over the Sinai. Since Gaza was attached to Sinai geographically, economically, sociologically and politically, then-Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin offered Sadat to cede control over Gaza to Egypt as well. Sadat refused to accept it.
Citing then-Israeli Defense Minister Ezer Weitzman, who was one of the senior negotiators in the peace talks with Egypt, Hacohen explained that Sadat’s motive for refusing Gaza was entirely hostile to Israel. It was only after the peace was concluded that Begin understood that Sadat had played him for a fool.
Weitzman claimed that Sadat insisted that Israel retain control over Gaza, while isolating Gaza from its economic hub in the Sinai because he wanted to harm Israel. In isolation from Sinai, Gaza suddenly became “Palestinian.” Its residents became part of a larger “Palestinian” problem that also included Judea and Samaria — the non-adjacent area along Israel’s border with Jordan. By detaching Gaza from Egypt and attaching it politically to Judea and Samaria, Sadat made the Palestinian conflict with Israel insoluble.
In light of Egypt’s dual role as both the first Arab state to make peace with Israel and the source of Gaza’s chronic instability and security menace, it would be reasonable for President Trump to focus on two issues in his meeting with Sisi. First, he should urge Sisi to reintegrate Gaza and northern Sinai economically. Doing so would ease the suffering of the people of Gaza, and radically diminish Hamas’s ability to exploit the civilian population as human shields in its war against Israel.
Second, Trump should point out that as it did in 1979, Egypt holds the keys to peace in the Middle East. If Sisi permits Gaza to reintegrate into the Sinai and so saves the people of Gaza from misery and poverty under Hamas’s jihadist jackboot, and if Sisi normalizes his country’s relations with Israel by promoting acceptance of Jews and the Jewish state, he will expand the prospects for Middle East peace in a way that a hundred peace plans and summits never can.
Caroline Glick is a world-renowned journalist and commentator on the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy, and the author of The Israeli Solution: A One-State Plan for Peace in the Middle East. She is running for Israel’s Knesset as a member of the Yamin Hahadash (New Right) party in Israel’s parliamentary elections, scheduled for April 9. Read more at www.CarolineGlick.com.