As the Egyptian revolution approached its climax the first priority of Israel and the West was that the so-called cornerstone of Middle East peace and security remain in place — the much-fabled 1979 Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated the almost sacred truth that the “longstanding peace treaty between Israel and Egypt has greatly contributed to both countries and is the cornerstone for peace and stability in the entire Middle East.” Going further, military expert Amos Harel warned that any break in the treaty could have dire consequences for Israel and so consequently the Egyptian revolution represented “a nightmare to Israeli intelligence leaders and planners” (“Cairo Tremors Will Be Felt Here, Haaretz, 30 January 2011).
This certainly would be understandable if an Egyptian abrogation of the treaty would be likely to lead to war, or if Israel had implemented the peace accords in good faith. The truth however is that Israel absolutely ignored its obligations under Part 1 of the treaty — to allow representative self-government in the West Bank and Gaza Strip leading to independence — while using the sure knowledge of Egypt’s neutrality to launch a series of devastating wars. Indeed, when one looks at the historical record there can surely be few treaties that have brought so little peace and so much war.
That Israel always viewed the Camp David Accords as a blank check is evident both in its behavior and in Western and Israeli commentators’ fears that the abrogation of the treaty might mean Israel will have to curtail its military interventions.
Writing in Israel’s Haaretz on 14 February, Aluf Benn declared, “Israel will find it difficult to take action far to the east when it cannot rely on the tacit agreement to its actions on its western border. Without Mubarak there is no Israeli attack on Iran.” Thus Benn concludes that Mubarak’s departure has actually prevented a new Israeli war.
Certainly Israel has used the absence of any significant Arab counterweight to pursue policies that have either repeatedly brought war, or in the case of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, presented “serious obstruction[s] to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East” as UN Security Council resolutions 446 and 478 put it.
What is evident from the record is that Israel wasted no time putting the treaty to the test. In 1980 it illegally annexed East Jerusalem, and the following year the Syrian Golan Heights. In 1981 it launched an illegal attack on Iraq’s nuclear reactor.
More significantly Israel also used the accords as a means to continue the destruction and dispossession of Palestinian society. Under Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who won the Nobel Peace Prize with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, Israel developed a twin track approach with regard to the Palestinians of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip: a collaborationist “village league” form of governance was established, although due to Palestinian resistance it failed to take root, while simultaneously the number of illegal colonists in the West Bank and Gaza more than quadrupled (according to data published by the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, and collated by Peace Now, the number of settlers in the West Bank grew from 5,000 in the early 1970s to more than 20,000 in 1983).
This was a negation of the accords that led Israeli cabinet minister Ezer Weizman to resign after declaring that no one in the cabinet was interested in peace. Begin however was undeterred, which was not at all surprising as after the 1978 establishment of the illegal colony of Elon Moreh outside Nablus he had boasted that there would be “many more Elon Morehs to come” — a prophecy that has become only too true, as today there are over half a million Israeli settlers in the West Bank.
However Begin’s primary use of the accords was as a means to wage war. In the first instance this meant the 1982 invasion of Lebanon and the war against the Palestine Liberation Organization — a war launched without provocation and in the midst of what Noam Chomsky has described as a PLO “peace offensive.” During the course of this war Israel not only devastated the Palestinian and Lebanese populations of Lebanon but also systematically trashed the country and trounced the Syrian army when it sought to defend itself. At its end the International Committee of the Red Cross estimated that 17,825 civilians had been killed. Would this have been possible without Israel knowing that Egypt was permanently out of the conflict?
The same of course holds true for subsequent Israeli military actions, whether it was the brutal crushing of unarmed resistance during the first Intifada from 1987 to 1993, or the 1996 and 2006 reinvasions of Lebanon, or the mass casualties of the second intifada and the 2008-09 invasion of Gaza. In every case knowledge that Egypt would either stand idly by or indeed approve has made Israel confident that it could act with impunity.
Yet this was not always the case. For many years leading up to the Camp David Accords the Arab League had insisted that a final peace agreement must be a comprehensive one involving all parties to the conflict. Tragically Egypt under Sadat chose to break that consensus and by putting its own interests first effectively undermined the negotiating positions of all other Arab parties whilst giving Israel a free hand to militarily enforce its vision on the Middle East. If then the Camp David Accords do breakdown this should not be read as a sign that peace is further away than ever, but rather that perhaps at long last an all-embracing peace amongst equals may be possible.
Speaking at the time of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty signing, the late PLO leader Yasser Arafat commented, “Let them sign what they like. False peace will not last.” For Palestinians, Syrians, Lebanese and indeed Israelis, he has been proven only too correct.
Richard Irvine teaches a course at Queen’s University Belfast entitled “The Battle for Palestine” which explores the entire history of the conflict. Irvine has also worked voluntarily in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and taken part in olive planting and harvesting in the West Bank.