Israel-Egypt peace treaty has stood the test of time over 45 years: expert explains its significance

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Israel-Egypt peace treaty has stood the test of time over 45 years: expert explains its significance
Credit: © Reuters.

The peace agreement between Egypt and Israel, signed in 1979 to end hostilities and normalise relations between them, turns 45 on 26 March. The Conversation Africa asked Ofir Winter, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies, who studies Egyptian politics and the Arab-Israeli conflict, for his insights on the peace deal and the key challenging moments since it was signed.

When and why did the peace treaty come into force?

After five wars over three decades, Egypt and Israel signed a historic peace agreement in March 1979. It marked the first treaty of its kind between an Arab country and Israel. Since then, five more Arab countries – Jordan, the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan – have made peace with Israel.

The peace deal, and its consequences, are viewed as having reshaped the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict for the better.

Jerusalem and Cairo had various motivations to choose peace over conflict. Israel wanted to secure its southern border and neutralise the region’s largest and most powerful Arab country.

Egypt wanted to restore its sovereignty over the Sinai Peninsula, which it lost in the 1967 Six-Day War. It also wanted to redirect resources from military spending to strengthen its economy. And it wanted to strengthen its ties with the United States, by being at peace with its ally, Israel.

Peace with Israel contributes to Egypt’s regional and international standing. It positions it as a positive stabilising actor in Middle Eastern politics, and as a mediator between Israel and the Palestinians.

The Israel-Egypt agreement, although labelled “cold peace”, grants both countries diplomatic and military cooperation. It also boosts tourism between them (mainly from Israel to southern Sinai), and allows modest mutual trade.

In 2018, the countries signed a deal for Israeli gas exports to Egypt for 10 years, worth US$15 billion. This was followed by the establishment of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum in Cairo with other regional partners. Israel’s gas exports are crucial for Egypt’s economy. They also support its aspiration to become a regional energy hub.

What challenges has the treaty faced?

During the era of President Hosni Mubarak (1981-2011), both countries experienced several crises, such as the recalls of Egyptian ambassadors in protest against Israeli policies following the First Lebanon War (1982-1986) and amid the second Palestinian intifada (uprising) (2000-2005).

The attack on the Israeli embassy in Cairo by Egyptian protesters in September 2011, following a terrorist incident at the Egyptian-Israeli border resulting in the death of eight Israelis and three Egyptians, also left a lasting negative impact on their relations. Since then, the Israeli embassy has left its previous permanent residence and operates on a reduced scale and with a lower profile.

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However, past crises did not escalate to the point of suspending the peace agreement. Cairo still considers peace an important asset that serves its core interests. These include its strategic relationship with the United States. This provides it annual military and economic aid of over US$1 billion. Egypt also benefits from intelligence cooperation with Israel in the fight against terrorism in Sinai. In addition, the two countries have various economic collaborations worth billions.

Gaza conflict and the peace treaty

Since the outbreak of the war in Gaza following the Hamas terrorist attack on Israel on 7 October 2023, Egypt has consistently stated that the temporary or permanent displacement of Gaza residents to its territory, whether intentional or unintentional, is not up for discussion.

The only exceptions are limited humanitarian cases, such as admitting injured individuals for medical treatment in Egypt.

Hosting Gaza refugees could strain the Egyptian economy. It could also facilitate Islamist and jihadist infiltration to the country, and provoke internal security issues, further complicating the Israel-Egypt border situation.

Even before the current war, Egypt had long been concerned about alleged Israeli plots to resolve the Gaza issue at its expense. These concerns have been heightened by recent statements from Israeli right-wing politicians that were wrongly interpreted as reflecting Israeli official policy. And Egypt fears that Hamas and other Islamist groups may challenge its sovereignty in pursuit of their own agenda.

Another Egyptian concern relates to possible Israeli violation of their demilitarisation agreements. According to the military appendix of the 1979 peace agreement, areas C and D near the Egyptian-Israeli border are subject to demilitarisation. Any temporary or permanent changes require mutual coordination.

Should Israel undertake military operations in Rafah involving more than the four battalions allowed under the appendix, Egypt may assert a breach of the agreement. A mechanism of military coordination between the Israeli and Egyptian defence forces monitors the parties’ commitments in the peace agreement. They work to solve disputes and to prevent escalations.

The current tensions coincide with an economic crisis in Egypt and political protests in Israel. They undermine the legitimacy of both governments.

This situation pushes both sides to take a more populist approach towards each other. This could divert attention from domestic criticism to external threats. Also, Egypt is cautious not to be perceived by domestic and Arab audiences as collaborating with Israel against the Palestinians.

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Such an atmosphere, where politicians prioritise short-term public opinion considerations over long-term interests, could escalate the problem.

Even amid the tensions stemming from the war in Gaza, Egypt has no intention of abrogating its peace treaty with Israel. The Egyptian foreign minister has reaffirmed Cairo’s commitment to the agreement.

However, Egypt may still take additional steps to express its protest towards Israel. These include recalling the Egyptian ambassador from Tel Aviv, before resorting to more severe actions like suspending the peace treaty or some of its aspects, which could be harmful for both sides.

Read more: Hamas assault echoes 1973 Arab-Israeli war – a shock attack and questions of political, intelligence culpability

Finally, the 7 October Hamas attack has already stalled the process of normalising relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Undermining the delicate relations between Israel and Egypt could potentially grant Hamas another strategic political achievement. It is in the interest of both Israel and Egypt, as well as the wider international community, to prevent such an outcome and ensure another 45 years of stable peace between the two nations.

Ofir Winter does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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