Forget the Palestinians; The Future of Land-For-Peace Depends On Egypt

By Evelyn Gordon
JINSA Visiting Fellow

By Evelyn Gordon
JINSA Visiting Fellow

Amid the din of debate over a possible Israeli strike on Iran, perhaps it is unsurprising that Israeli Intelligence Minister Dan Meridor’s press conference on February 20 attracted so little international attention. But in a world that claims to view an Israeli-Palestinian deal as a top priority, it should have sounded alarm bells. Israelis, warned Meridor, may never again sign another land-for-peace deal if Egypt unilaterally alters or abrogates its treaty with Israel.

Meridor is not the first Israeli to issue this warning in recent months, but he is one of the most prominent. Moreover, despite serving in a government usually dismissed overseas as “hard-line” or “right-wing,” he is a politician far more popular on the left than on the right, an outspoken advocate of an Israeli-Palestinian treaty who even supports freezing construction in the settlements (outside the major settlement blocs). When someone like that warns that the entire land-for-peace paradigm is in danger, it is worth paying attention.

Meridor was responding specifically to threats by Muslim Brotherhood leaders to “review” the treaty if America cuts aid to Egypt over Cairo’s harassment of American-backed nonprofits. But this is hardly the first time Egypt’s new ruling party has issued such threats. In December, for instance, a senior Brotherhood official declared that parliament should reconsider the treaty. In January, another senior official advocated putting the treaty to a popular referendum – where it would almost certainly be rejected. Indeed, the treaty is one of the few things virtually all Egyptians agree on. The secular opposition group Kefaya and the head of the liberal Ghad party, Ayman Nour, also advocate either scrapping it or at least substantially revising it. The result is that for the first time in almost 35 years, Israelis no longer see war with Egypt as unthinkable.

It is hard to overstate the significance of this, because for decades, the treaty with Egypt has been the sole pillar propping up the land-for-peace paradigm. Every subsequent experiment in ceding land proved a dismal failure.

Territorial handovers to the Palestinians under the Oslo Accords in the 1990s, for instance, produced not peace, but a massive increase in terror. In the first two and a half years after Oslo was signed in1993, Palestinians killed more Israelis than in the entire preceding decade, while the first four years of the second intifada (2000-2004) produced more terror-related casualties than the entire preceding 53 years.

In May 2000, Israelis expected their UN-certified pullout from every inch of Lebanon to eliminate Hezbollah’s motivation for war. Instead, Hezbollah escalated, committing its first ever cross-border kidnapping just five months later. In 2006, another such kidnapping sparked the Second Lebanon War.

Similarly, Israel’s unilateral pullout from Gaza in mid-2005 produced nothing but a dramatic escalation in rocket and mortar fire on southern Israel. Rocket launches alone jumped from 475 in 2001-04 to 5,765 in 2006-10, or from about 120 a year to about 1,150 a year – an almost tenfold increase.

And while the peace with Jordan has held, that treaty was not a land-for-peace deal. Since Jordan had previously relinquished all claim to the West Bank, it entailed no Israeli territorial concessions. Rather, it merely formalized a de facto peace that had existed for two decades already.

But through all this, the treaty with Egypt served as the shining counterexample – the proof that land for peace could work, given the right partners and the right conditions. Though never more than a cold peace, it consistently provided Israel with the one great good it promised, a secure southern border. And it survived despite repeated tensions, including two Palestinian intifadas and two Israeli-Lebanese wars.

Now, however, it looks increasingly likely that what made the Egyptian peace succeed was not any intrinsic merit in the land-for-peace paradigm, but merely the remarkable longevity in office of one man, former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, whose 30-year tenure encompassed most of the treaty’s lifespan.

And that in turn is leading a growing number of Israelis who previously supported land-for-peace to wonder whether it may not be an inherently unworkable paradigm, due to the fatal flaw encapsulated in its very name. In any land-for-peace deal, only one party actually considers “peace” a value worth trading for. What interests the other party is not peace, but gaining strategic assets such as land.

This fact is not exactly a secret. The New York Times, for instance, explained the Muslim Brotherhood’s threat to “review” the treaty if U.S. aid were cut by baldly admitting that “Egyptians have long considered American aid as a kind of payment for preserving the peace despite the popular resentment of Israel.” In other words, unlike Israelis, Egyptians do not see “peace” as a good in itself; they merely see it as a profitable protection racket – a way to wrest the Sinai from Israel and $1.3 billion a year from America. So if the payments dry up, “peace” has no more value.

The obvious problem with this from Israel’s perspective is that the land traded in exchange for peace is unrecoverable, even if the peace proves ephemeral. Israel did not reoccupy Lebanon or Gaza when those withdrawals went sour, and it will not reoccupy Sinai if Egypt abrogates the treaty. It will merely be left facing the next war in a far worse defensive position, without the generous territorial buffer that Sinai once provided between the Egyptian army and the Israeli heartland. Hence if the peace can not be counted on to last, land-for-peace is a terrible deal for Israel.

Given this, it is mind-boggling that Western leaders are still obsessing over bilateral Israeli-Palestinian issues, like settlement construction or reviving the stalled Jordanian-sponsored peace talks, while simply ignoring the looming Egyptian threat. Another few hundred houses in the settlements will not preclude a land-for-peace deal in the future; neither will the failure of yet another round of Israeli-Palestinian talks. But the collapse of the Israeli-Egyptian treaty would doom any land-for-peace deal for generations to come.

Perhaps, given its inherently problematic nature, the land-for-peace paradigm deserves to die. But if Western leaders are serious about wanting to preserve it, they need to realize that the Israeli-Palestinian issue is a sideshow. Preserving the Israeli-Egyptian peace is far more important.

Evelyn Gordon, JINSA Visiting Fellow, is a journalist and commentator writing in The Jerusalem Post and Commentary. For more information on the JINSA Visiting Fellows program, click here.