We are so used to studying momentous wars that we rarely take the time to consider momentous acts of peace. The Egyptian-Israeli peace of 1979 was just such a peace. It had it all: unorthodox political thinking; leaders dying for their beliefs; and a constructive role played by the United States of America. The three countries revolutionized the geopolitical situation in the Middle East and prevented any future inter-state wars in the region.1 One cannot help but think that participants in the Middle East conflict could learn a thing or two from this story today.
A state of war had existed between Egypt and Israel since Israel was created, and Egypt's interface with the Jewish state had been the most acrimonious of any Arab nation. After the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, which many Arabs refer to simply as al Nakba (the catastrophe), Egypt fought four other conflicts with Israel. The first was the war over the Suez canal in 1956, which was initiated after Nasser nationalized the lane. The second was the Six Day War of 1967, which was supposed to see Egyptian President Nasser leading combined Arab armies to a glorious victory, but saw the opposite. In this episode, Israel captured Egyptian lands east of the Suez canal on the Sinai peninsula and came to consider the lands as vital to their defence as they would provide warning of another attack.
Egypt then fought a limited war, known merely as "the war of attrition", to try and win the Sinai back. Counting on Israel's notorious lack of manpower, the Egyptians hoped to drive them away by inflicting a smaller number of casualties; Egypt itself, with its large manpower reserve, could absorb the deaths. Israel stayed firm and inflicted casualties on the Egyptians at a ratio of 5:1, and when President Nasser died his successor moved to a different strategy. He now hoped, with an influx of Soviet equipment that he hoped would hold off the Israeli Air Force, to launch a large-scale attack and force Israel back from the the east bank of the canal. Launched on October 6, 1973 under cover of a military exercise, this became the Yom Kippur War.
The Egyptians inflicted heavier losses on the Israelis than they expected to sustain in such an eventuality, although the Israeli army managed in the later days to cross the Suez canal and cut off a large part of the Egyptian force just as the ceasefire came into effect. Israel had prevailed, but it had also had to taste its own vulnerability; the string of defeats it endured early in the war prompted soul-searching and the creation of a national commission to look at the problem, much like after the war in Lebanon in 2006. Israel was now in a quandary. The argument against relinquishing the Sinai was now even greater than it had been before - it was still needed to prevent a surprise attack - but the country could also not endure more conflicts such as the one that had just transpired. A more permanent solution had to be found.
Egypt likewise felt that it could not continue to solve its problems via costly fighting, but had been bolstered by the early successes. Hence, in a U.S.-brokered plan, the two countries came to the negotiating table. Leaders in both countries embarked on this potentially unpopular move because they realized that their state of war had become an unnecessary burden which could be resolved by other means. It was a triumph of moderation and realism, the realization that both countries would be better off abandoning their ideological differences and embracing peace for the good of their peoples. And so, in a remarkable sequence of events over the rest of the decade, the countries negotiated their outstanding issues and eventually signed a peace treaty in 1979.
The treaty, along with the Camp David Accords of 1978, paved the way for a whole new situation in the Middle East. Egypt became the first Arab country to recognize Israel's right to exist and establish normal relations, hence shedding one of the most embedded but ultimately fruitless and vicious shibboleths of Arab politics. And it turned out that Israel was much more use to Egypt at the negotiating table than she was on the battlefield, a lesson other Arab countries may wish to learn. In exchange for this recognition, Israel gave Egypt the Sinai peninsula back and the two agreed to peace.
A crucial part of the agreement was that the United States lubricated the wheels generously. The U.S. agreed to subsidies to both countries of several billion dollars a year, payments that continue to this day (in spite of an obsession with aid levels to Israel among many who entirely ignore the fact that the same level of aid is paid to Egypt). The money was necessary to get Israel to relinquish the Sinai, as it allowed the Jewish state to modernize its military to protect against a future surprise attack. Meanwhile, the money purchased Egypt's agreement and closed the door on any likely war between Israel and the Arab states; such a conflagration was unlikely without the support of Egypt, the most powerful Arab state. Egypt hence became the leading moderate Arab country and played the most constructive role of any in the Arab-Israeli conflict; for its pains it was expelled from the Arab League, only to be readmitted in 1989.
The price for Egypt's president Anwar Sadat was even higher. He was assassinated in 1981 by Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a group that included Osama bin Laden's number two Ayman al-Zawahiri among its membership. The triumphant Islamist declared "I have killed pharaoh!" upon shooting the president, depicting Sadat as a secular, this-wordly ruler who had betrayed the cause of Islam and the religious duty to aid the Palestinians. But in fact, the deal he had inked laid the way for the creation of autonomous institutions in the Palestinian territories - which will be the basis of any future two-state solution - and for Egypt to play a substantial role in any future progress between the Palestinians and the Israelis.
By abandoning brutal dreams of driving the Jews into the sea or liberating the Palestinians by force of arms, Sadat had displayed the ultimate in realistic statesmanship. His moderation and willingness to compromise brought the most substantial progress that the region had seen for decades, and laid the way for much more. He had travelled into the heart of his former enemy, giving a speech in the Israeli Knesset and hence fulfilling his pledge to "go anywhere" for peace. And peace has prevailed between the two countries since, providing an example for others to follow; meanwhile, Egypt has became by far the most prosperous and advanced Arab state.
In a region in which the forces of extremism and war are once again on the march, the Israeli-Egyptian peace serves as an example of what can be accomplished by realistic and humane bargaining. The time has long passed for the lessons of this episode to be applied elsewhere.
1. There have been, of course, two bloody conflicts in Lebanon. But these have seen the Israeli Defence Forces almost exclusively battling non-state groups and not a major Arab state.