Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Egyptian, Israeli Relations Getting Colder

Many Egyptians are calling for a revision of the Camp David agreement - but Israel is in no mood for dialogue.
By Daniella Peled

Daniella Peled

Daniella Peled
IWPR editor

The cold peace between Israel and Egypt is heading for a deep freeze. The peace treaty between the two countries is seen in post-revolutionary Egypt as the legacy of a former dictatorship, and a new low was reached with the assault on the Israeli embassy by an angry crowd on September 9.

Anger at the accidental shooting of five Egyptian soldiers by the Israel Defence Forces - following a recent attack by Gaza militants near the border in which eight Israelis were killed - boiled over into a riot outside the Israeli embassy in Cairo. Egyptian forces initially stood by as rioters stormed the building, then dispersed the crowds killing three people an injuring more than a thousand.

But despite the public fury at the Israeli killing of the border guards and the Egyptian security forces’ violent crackdown, only a minority in Egypt called for the scrapping of the peace treaty with Israel.

Instead, there is a consensus, from the Islamists to the ruling military council, that the terms of the agreement, signed three decades ago, need to be changed.

The Muslim Brotherhood, MB, after decades of staunch opposition to Israel, now takes the position that future relations are for the Egyptian people to decide.

MB secretary-general Mahmoud Hussein said he considered it unreasonable to keep the agreement as it is, calling for to be revised then put before a referendum.

The government seems to agree.

“The Camp David agreement is not a sacred thing and is always open to discussion with what would benefit the region and the case of fair peace,” Prime Minister Essam Sharaf told Turkish television. “We could make a change if needed.”

The Egyptian public wants Israel to invest more energy in securing a peace deal with the Palestinians, and feel that business and trade deals enshrined in the 1979 agreement are effectively financing the occupation.

Other aspects of the treaty also rankle, such as visa restrictions imposed on Egyptians wishing to visit Israel and limits on the number Egyptian troops in the eastern Sinai.

Publically, Israel remains adamant that the treaty cannot be altered.

However, Israel does calculate that it is in its short-term interest to permit the expansion of the Egyptian military deployment in the Sinai - allowing more than 1,500 extra troops into the peninsula since the revolution.

The rise in smuggling, near-open revolt from the Bedouin and the emergence of global jihadi groups in the region presents a threat to Israel and Egypt alike.

But this needs to be balanced against long-term concerns about having Egypt’s massive land-based army just across its border – a huge risk when the political future of Egypt and its role within the Middle East remains so unclear.

From Israel’s point of view, it did everything it could to defuse the crisis sparked by the accidental killing of the five Egyptian soldiers. Lessons had been learnt from the Mavi Marmara debacle in which nine Turkish citizens were killed and which saw relations with Ankara deteriorate drastically.

So there were speedy expressions of regret from Jerusalem, and the announcement of a joint Israeli-Egyptian investigation into the border incident.

Cairo initially seemed content. But two weeks later, when the embassy was attacked, leaders of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, SCAF, reportedly including Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, were strangely unavailable to take calls from Jerusalem - until the United States intervened.

“We don’t know who calls the shots, which is an invitation to disaster,” said one Israeli diplomat. “ SCAF have proved very fickle and easily influenced by the mob, which now dictates foreign policy, not just towards Israel but the West.”

Israel suspects anti-western feeling permeating Egyptian public opinion is influencing government decisions. The diplomat pointed to Egypt’s June decision to turn down a three billion US dollar loan from the World Bank and the IMF, despite facing financial meltdown. Instead, it reportedly accepted a billion dollars of funds from Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Jerusalem’s analysis is that SCAF deemed receiving western money might bring about its downfall. “They are petrified of public opinion,” the Israeli diplomat said.

Given Israel’s distrust of SCAF, it is unlikely to countenance any discussion over its peace treaty with Egypt until the latter elects a new leadership – parliamentary elections are due in November and a presidential ballot will follow next year. SCAF, meanwhile, has its hands full trying to oversee the transition to democracy and cannot really afford to be distracted by calls for a revision of the 1979 agreement, even if these heighten with the imminent vote at UN on Palestinian independence.

So for the moment, neither side has any real interest in redrawing the Camp David deal. It seems, there’s little mood for reconciliation but no appetite for conflict. What’s most likely is a just a lingering slide into long-term, slow-burning hostility.

Daniella Peled is the editor of the Arab Spring.

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily the views of IWPR.