This week in history: Egypt and Israel sign peace treaty

Published: Thursday, March 28 2013 8:20 p.m. MDT

On March 26, 1979, Egypt and Israel singed a peace treaty that ended three decades of hostility between the two Middle East nations. The peace had been mediated the preceding September by the President of the United States, Jimmy Carter.

In the years following World War II, many European Jews, fleeing the horrors of the Holocaust in Europe, arrived in Palestine, a British mandate since the end of World War I. There they worked with other Jews in the region to create a Jewish national home, something that the British government had promised during World War I with the 1917 Balfour Declaration.

The native Palestinians, however, viewed the Jewish arrival as a new wave of European colonization of the area, and violence between the two groups broke out. Britain, broke after the massive expenses of fighting World War II, stated its intention to pull out of Palestine and hand control over to the new United Nations organization. The U.N. announced its intentions to take control of the region on May 15, 1948.

The day before, however, the Jewish leader David Ben-Gurion declared the formation of an independent state of Israel. The declaration read in part:

“After being forcibly exiled from their land, the people kept faith with it throughout their Dispersion and never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it and a restoration of their political freedom. ... Thus members and representatives of the Jews of Palestine and of the Zionist movement upon the end of the British Mandate, by virtue of 'natural and historic right,' and based on the United Nations resolution ... hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel to be known as the State of Israel.”

Almost immediately Egypt, Syria, Jordan (then Transjordan) and Iraq invaded the territory of the new nation. After nearly a year of on-again, off-again fighting, the Israelis managed to hold their ground and maintain their independence. It was not the last time that Israel and Egypt went to war, however.

In 1956, the Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser threatened to nationalize the Suez Canal. Israel, fearful of its security against Egypt, joined in an ill-conceived and poorly executed plan by the British and French to occupy the canal zone. Though the whole affair ended in fiasco, Israel's military once again proved up to the challenge, destroying many Egyptian forces and conquering the Sinai Peninsula, though international pressure forced its return to Egypt.

Israel's participation in the conflict had been predicated upon its need for security. Occupying a territory not much larger than the Wasatch Front, Israel knew only too well its vulnerabilities. More than anything, it craved recognition and peace. Surrounded on all sides by hostile neighbors, the Israelis knew that without a formal peace treaty, another coalition of enemies could wipe it off the map. If its neighbors did not want peace, then Israel must use any means necessary to defend itself.

Militarily humiliated, however, the Egyptians called for revenge. Over the course of the 1960s, Nasser's language became increasingly hawkish, and many believed a new Egyptian-Israeli war was in the offing. Additionally, many terrorist attacks from Syria, with the declared intention of creating a Palestinian state, heightened tensions. Unable to ignore the potential disaster of an Egyptian first strike, the Israelis launched a first strike of their own on June 5, 1967, inaugurating the Six-Day War.

Taking Egypt by surprise, the Israelis once again were able to conquer the Sinai Peninsula, as well as other strategic areas like the Golan Heights, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. In his book “Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East,” historian and Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael B. Oren wrote of the unsatisfying post-war situation:

“Basic truths persisted: for all its military conquests, Israel was still incapable of imposing the peace it craved. Though roundly defeated, the Arabs could still mount a formidable military campaign. The status of territories could be negotiated but the essential issues — Israel's right to exist, the demand for Palestinian state(hood) — remained.”

During the October 1973 Yom Kippur War, Egypt and Syria attacked Israel with a surprise strike. Taking back much of the Sinai Peninsula unopposed, the Egyptians and their partners looked as though they might succeed in destroying Israel once and for all. Eventually, the Israelis were able to stabilize their positions and strike back, though they gladly welcomed a U.N. cease-fire later that month.

The Yom Kippur War left an important impression upon Israelis and Egyptians alike. Israel's brilliant military track record was shattered, and the desire for a peace treaty became even more urgent. For Egypt and its president, Anwar Sadat, the prospect of a victory over Israel seemed more unattainable than ever. Both sides were ready to talk.

The United States also began to see opportunities in the Middle East. Egypt had been a firm Soviet ally, and now it looked like the Arab state could be lured away with the promise of peace and military subsidies by the U.S. When Jimmy Carter became president in 1977, he took an active interest in the idea of Middle East peace, and his administration began working with both governments.

After some initial reluctance and mistrust on both sides, Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin met at the presidential retreat in Camp David, Md., in September 1978. Carter and his diplomatic team, including Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, began the arduous process of negotiating peace between nations that had been at each other's throat for 30 years. For 13 grueling days each side played a reluctant game of give and take that often caused tempers to flare.

On Sept. 17, the two sides finally reached an agreement and signed the Camp David Accords. For their efforts to foster peace, Sadat and Begin would share the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize. With the groundwork in place, Egypt and Israel were finally ready for a formal peace treaty.

In his book “The Land of Blood and Honey: The Rise of Modern Israel,” historian Martin van Creveld wrote: “In the end, the Camp David Accords agreement that was formed at Camp David and signed in a public ceremony at the White House on March 26, 1979, left both sides fairly content with their achievements. The Egyptians got what they wanted most, i.e., the whole of the Sinai. ... The Israelis, on their part, got most of what they wanted, i.e., peace, recognition, demilitarization, early warning posts in the Sinai ... and freedom of navigation.”

With the formal signing of the treaty, Egypt became the first Arab state to formally recognize the existence of Israel, and it was indeed coaxed out of the Soviet sphere. Despite the great achievement of a formal peace treaty, it is possible that current events in Egypt could undermine the peace and initiate a new round of wars between the two nations. Hopefully, cooler heads will continue to prevail.

For a wonderful, fictionalized version of Israel's military history in the wars mentioned above, I highly recommend Herman Wouk's insightful novels, “The Hope” and “The Glory.”

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the co-developer of the History Challenge iPhone/iPad apps. Email: ckcarlson76@gmail.com

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