Israel-Egypt Relations: A Review of Bilateral Ties
A Chronology of Israel-Egypt Relations
The Peace Treaty between Israel and Egypt, signed on March 26, 1979, constituted an historic milestone in the Arab-Israeli Conflict. This was the first time that an Arab country had renounced the armed struggle against Israel, and had recognized, by dint of a binding agreement, the existence of Israel and its right to secure and recognized borders.
The peace treaty was signed a few years after the bloody Yom Kippur War (also known as the October War) that was launched on October 6, 1973. Following the war, the countries engaged in the first tentative diplomatic moves that reached their apogee with President Sadat's announcement of his readiness to visit Israel, in order to begin talks with its leaders along with his eventual arrival in Israel on November 19, 1977. During the visit, President Sadat presented an address from the Knesset Podium, and following the visit, there was a flurry of diplomatic activity, overseen by the United States, including the Camp David Summit of September 1978.
In the wake of the Peace Treaty of 1979, Israel and Egypt established full diplomatic relations. Israel's Embassy in Cairo - the first of its kind in any Arab country - was opened in February 1980, and Egypt's Embassy in Israel was opened in March 1980. Aside from the peace treaty, Israel and Egypt signed about 50 normalization agreements, covering a variety of issues, including economic and cultural matters, designed to enhance peace between the two countries.
In spite of the bleak forecasts, the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt has withstood numerous difficult challenges, including the assassination of President Sadat on October 6, 1981, Operation Peace for Galilee in 1982, the presence of the IDF in Lebanon many years after the conclusion of the aforementioned operation, and the Palestinian intifada which began in December 1987. Following the signing of the peace treaty, Egypt was suspended from the Arab League.
In spite of the fact that the peace treaty was intended to serve as a framework for the resolution of the entire Arab-Israeli conflict (as Egypt claimed), the continuation of the conflict has cast a shadow over the relations between Israel and Egypt. Thus, the Egyptian Ambassador, Saad Murtada, was recalled to Cairo for consultations in the wake of Operation Peace for Galilee of 1982, and his successor was appointed after only eight months. This step was repeated in November 2000, following the eruption of the violence in September of that year, with the recall of Ambassador Mohammed Bassiouni for consultations. To date, no successor has been appointed. Moreover, following Operation Defensive Shield of March 2002, the Egyptian Government decided to suspend the inter-governmental ties with Israel, with the exception of diplomatic channels dealing with the Palestinian domain.
In spite of these difficulties and the opposition of many groups in Egypt to the peace with Israel (exemplified by the trade unions who prohibit any kind of normalization on the part of its members with Israel or with Israelis), the two countries conduct diplomatic relations, tourism ties and cooperation in trade and agriculture. In addition, the Israeli Academic Center is active in Cairo. At present, Israel seeks to enhance its relations with Egypt, and its efforts are focusing on the return of the Egyptian Ambassador to Israel and the consolidation of bilateral cooperation in various spheres, including the advancement of the peace process in the region.
The foundation stone of the peaceful relations between Israel and Egypt is the "Peace Agreement between the Arab Republic of Egypt and the State of Israel" signed on March 26, 1979. The essence of the peace treaty is the termination of the state of war between the two countries, in return for an Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula.
The "Framework for Peace in the Middle East" that was signed at Camp David on September 17, 1978 was added as an Annex to the peace treaty. The second part of the Framework Agreement concerned the formula for the continuation of Israel and Egypt's activities leading to the establishment of a self-governing authority in the West Bank and Gaza, in order to provide full autonomy for its inhabitants. The Agreement expresses an aspiration for the establishment of other peace agreements between Israel and its neighbours, following the peace treaty with Egypt.
The peace treaty established the termination of the state of war between the two countries and the withdrawal of armed forces and civilians from the Sinai, behind the international boundary, and determined the permanent boundary between Israel and Egypt, with the exception of the border in the Taba area, whose status was eventually determined in 1988. The treaty prohibited the use of force by one party against the other, establishing that disagreements would be resolved through peaceful means. The treaty also established the right of free passage through international waterways, including passage through the Suez Canal, the Straits of Tiran and Eilat. It also sets forth the establishment of a UN force to prevent violation of the security arrangements. Ultimately, a Multinational Observer Force was established, with American backing, as a result of the UN's refusal to recognize the peace treaty.
In the wake of the peace treaty, Israel and Egypt signed normalization agreements, with negotiations on most of these agreements continuing until April 1982 - the date of the completion of Israel's withdrawal from Sinai. These agreements, formulated by a joint committee of experts, presented in great detail the various political, economic and cultural issues requiring normalization.
In 1989, following the arbitration ruling on the Taba border line, Israel and Egypt reached two further agreements: one was related to the establishment of a border on the sea coast and the second was related to concessions for tourists arriving from Israel, passing through the Taba terminal.
Since the establishment of peace between Israel and Egypt, the two countries have developed trade relations in a number of realms, such as textiles, machinery, chemicals, vegetables and cotton. The peace treaty clearly specifies that Israel will purchase Egyptian oil on a regular basis. The level of trade, that has seen upturns and downturns over the years, has been declining since the Palestinian violence that erupted in September 2000.
Between 1994 and 2000, the total level of exports from Israel to Egypt was valued at $181 million. In 2000, the Israeli exports to Egypt were valued at $58.1 million. In 2001, Israeli products were exported to Egypt, with a total value of $47.1 million (a drop of 20 percent). Around half of the exports to Egypt were textile products. The remaining exports included chemical products, fertilizers and oil products. Israeli products accounted for around 0.3 percent of the overall Egyptian imports for the year 2000.
Between 1994 and 2000, the imports from Egypt to Israel reached a total of $1.606 billion. In 2001, Egypt imported goods (excluding oil and services) to Israel with a total value of $20 million, in comparison to a total of $20.7 million for 2000. Aside from oil, Egypt exports fresh vegetables, raw cotton, textiles, wood products and chemicals.
Apart from trade, the two countries have established agricultural cooperation, with an emphasis on arid-zone development, irrigation, open-field plastic covered vegetable production, veterinary vaccine production and the growth of fruit. Israel and Egypt are both involved, together with the United States, in the operation of the NUBASEED demonstration farm. The farm was established south of Alexandria, in 1987.
In the past, Israel ran a trade deficit in its trade ties with Egypt. However, following the drop in oil imports from Egypt, Israeli exports to Egypt are greater than the imports from the latter country. There has also been a recent decline in the agricultural cooperation between the two countries. Israel's efforts are now focused on the strengthening of economic trade and cooperation as well as scientific cooperation.
Since the establishment of relations, there is tourism between the two countries, with the Sinai Peninsula a popular site for Israeli visitors - especially in the summer months. The flow of Israeli tourists to Egypt reached a high of 415,000 in 1999. Since 2000, there has been a decline in the number of tourists, although visits still take place on an ongoing basis, albeit on a more limited scale. The flow of Egyptian tourists to Israel reached a high of 28,000 in 1995, with 2,500 visitors to Israel in the first half of 2002. Israel is making an effort to increase the flow of tourists between the two countries.
The Jewish Community
Aside from biblical references to the Jews of Egypt, a Jewish community in Egypt began to take shape in Alexandria in the fourth century BC, under Greek rule. In addition, the Jewish community of Cairo took shape in the tenth century CE, under Arab rule. One of the best-known members of this Community was Maimonides who settled in Cairo in 1165, and it was there that he wrote most of his works. The Jewish community in Egypt prospered over hundreds of years, with up to 150,000 Jews living in Cairo alone. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Jews of Cairo were free to print their newspapers in French and Arabic, and twenty-nine synagogues were established. Jews played significant roles in the cotton trade and in banking, assisting in the establishment of the Egyptian National Bank. Streets and plazas were named after Jews, and some were elected to serve in parliament.
The Arab-Israeli conflict exacted a heavy toll on the Jewish community in Egypt. During the War of Independence (1948), 2,000 members of the community were arrested. On the eve of the war, the community was 75,000 strong. The Arab-Israeli wars were accompanied by a wave of Jewish emigration from Egypt to Israel and other countries, including France, the United States, Canada and Brazil. Following the Sinai Campaign of 1956, the Jewish community in Egypt numbered 40,000, dropping to 2,500 after the Six Day War of 1967, and declining further to 350, following the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Today, there are only a few dozen Jews, with most of them in their seventies or eighties.
Today, little remains of the rich heritage of Egyptian Jewry. Books and religious artifacts have either been sold to collectors, or they have been lost or stolen. Many of the synagogue buildings have been sold, and others have been taken over, and are now under the control of the Egyptian Ministry of Culture. The Ibn Ezra synagogue (tradition has it that this was the location in which Moses was rescued from the Nile) still serves as a tourism site.
Contrary to expectations, the peace between Israel and Egypt is not a warm peace. There are certainly a number of areas in which relations can be improved, whether in regard to the ties between the peoples, trade ties and relations between the political leaders of both countries. Nevertheless, the peace between Israel and Egypt has withstood difficult challenges, proving that despite the many obstacles, Israeli-Arab coexistence can be accomplished.
Sources: Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs