Israeli Attitudes Toward Egypt, 40 Years After Sadat’s Visit
Forty years ago this month, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat landed at Israel’s Ben-Gurion Airport for a two-day visit to Jerusalem, at the official invitation of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. The entire world held its breath.
Here was the leader of the largest and most populous Arab state, which had spearheaded repeated pan-Arab attempts to destroy Israel, visiting the contested capital of the Arab world’s foremost nemesis — in an apparent acquiescence to the legitimacy of the Jewish state’s existence, and its right to peaceful co-existence with its Arab neighbors.
So profound was the general disbelief that the Israeli chief-of-staff, Lt. Gen. Mordechai Gur, warned the government that the visit was an Egyptian deceptive ploy, similar to the Egyptian-Syrian surprise attack of October 1973.
But the visit proved to be the most important single political event in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, culminating in the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of March 1979, and the attendant shattering of the Arab world’s uniform rejection of Jewish statehood. And while Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarak, held a far more restrictive view of the agreement, the Israeli-Egyptian peace has successfully weathered many regional crises (from the 1982 Lebanon war, to the “Al-Aqsa Intifada,” to the 2014 Gaza conflict), paving the road to the October 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty and the yet-to-be-completed Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which was launched with the September 1993 Oslo agreement.
But how do Israelis view this momentous event, from a 40-year vantage point? Do they appreciate its full historic significance and the impact that it has had on their lives? And do they consider the price of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty worth paying?
A recent survey by Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA) shows a rather mixed picture. While 81% of respondents viewed the agreement as conducive to Israel’s national security, 51% deemed the concessions made for its attainment (notably the evacuation of the oil-rich Sinai Peninsula and the demolition of the Yamit town) to have been excessive, compared to 46% of respondents who considered them commensurate with the agreement’s mammoth gains.
This apparent contradiction seems to be a corollary of Israelis’ keen awareness of Mubarak’s lukewarm perception of peace. While one can only speculate about Sadat’s own ultimate intentions — he was assassinated in October 1981 by an Islamist zealot — for Mubarak, peace was of no value in and of itself, but was rather the price Cairo had to pay for such substantial benefits as US economic and military aid.
As a result, Mubarak reduced interaction with Israel to the lowest possible level, while simultaneously transforming the Egyptian army into a formidable modern force and fostering a culture of virulent antisemitism in Egypt, a culture whose premises he himself evidently shared.
Though President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has taken a different route, bringing Israeli-Egyptian relations to unprecedented heights, most Israelis seem to acknowledge the instrumental nature of the Egyptian perception of peace. Consequently, only 14% of the BESA survey regarded Egypt’s attitude to Israel as friendly (of whom 37% thought Israel “overpaid” for the agreement), while 68% viewed it as lukewarm and another 18% as hostile (of whom, 44% and 68% respectively deemed the concessions made for the agreement to be excessive).
Not surprisingly, perhaps, support for the agreement was found to be strongest among center-left voters, though it was actually the right-wing Likud Party that made the historic breakthrough. Ninety-two percent of Hamahane Hatzioni and Yesh Atid voters, as well as 88% of Meretz voters, believed the agreement enhanced Israel’s national security, as opposed to 82% of Likud voters, 82% of Habayit Hayehudi’s voters and 67% of Israel Beitenu voters. Support for the agreement within the ultra-Orthodox community was even lower, with 64% of Shas voters and 68% of Yahadut Hatorah voters viewing the agreement as conducive to Israel’s national security.
Likewise, the survey exposed the ambiguous attitude of Israel’s Arab citizens to the agreement — or indeed to possible Israeli reconciliation with the neighboring Arab states. While only 68% of Israeli Arabs viewed the agreement as conducive to Israel’s national security, compared to 83% of their Jewish compatriots, 17% of them deemed the price paid for its attainment to have been too low (compared to 1% of Israeli Jews). In other words, Israeli Arabs are more inclined than their Jewish counterparts (with the salient exception of Meretz voters) to have their state pay a higher price for a less favorable international agreement affecting its national security. This inclination is markedly higher among voters for the Joint Arab Party (compared to those voting for Jewish parties), with 22% of them considering the price too low.
The gap between Israeli Arabs and Jews notwithstanding, both communities are equally skeptical about the prospects for a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement, with more than 80% of respondents agreeing that there are currently no leaders of Sadat’s and Begin’s stature on either side of the divide who are capable of effecting a similarly momentous breakthrough. Hardly a heart-warming prognosis after nearly four decades of Egyptian-Israeli peace.
Efraim Karsh, Director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, is Emeritus Professor of Middle East and Mediterranean Studies at King’s College London and editor of Middle East Quarterly.
BESA Center Perspectives Papers, such as this one, are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.