The Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty – Context and Implications
Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty Signing, White House Lawn, March 26, 1979, GPO

The Egyptian-Israeli Treaty was the fourth Arab-Israeli agreement signed between the end of the 1973 October War until 1979, with another not signed until the 1993 Oslo Accords. Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat and Israel’s Prime Minister Begin met their respective national interests in signing this bilateral treaty, confounding the Carter administration’s preferred comprehensive peace between Israel and all of her proximate neighbors.  Sadat’s relentless pursuit of the full return of Israeli-held Egyptian Sinai and securing Israel’s commitment to evacuate all of Israeli settlements there were major Egyptian diplomatic successes, but Sadat would be assassinated in October 1981 for his pursuit of peace with the Jewish state.  For a decade after the treaty was signed, the vast majority of Muslim and Arab states venomously opposed Egypt’s recognition of Israel. With the treaty signing, Israel won a major strategic success by removing from Arab and Muslim states’ confrontation with Israel, the largest military and existential threat that Israel had faced since its establishment in 1948. And, Israel did not have to pay severe prices that the Carter administration dearly wanted: a commitment of Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the devolution of an independent Palestinian state, and a halting of Israeli settlements in these areas. 

Carter’s foreign policy success in mediating Egyptian-Israeli negotiations was mitigated by his inability to translate that success into significant domestic support in his 1980 reelection bid. From his first days in office, he alienated Labor and Likud Party Israeli leaders that they all opposed: negotiating with all Arab sides together in a conference, engaging in a political process that would lead to a Palestinian state, and withdrawing from the West Bank.  Moreover, in Carter’s dogged attempt to push Israel to stop settlements and have it negotiate with the PLO, he also significantly alienated the American Jewish voting public. Verbally and at the UN, the Carter administration slashed at Israel for its settlement policy for including portions of Jerusalem as part of its capital. His administration no matter how hard it tried, failed to persuade Syria, the PLO, and Jordan to join the comprehensive peace process.  Carter failed to comprehend how absolutely hostile Syria and the PLO were toward Israel’s very existence. He failed to obtain public Arab support, particularly from the Saudis for Sadat’s outreach to Israel. Decision makers at the State Department and White House were united in supporting an Egyptian-Israeli agreement, though they would have preferred a moratorium to settlement building and the evolution Palestinian self-determination.  There was not similar agreement across the administration about events unfolding in Iran. On the Shah’s demise and Iran’s future, the administration was rancorously divided on policy choices in managing the political turmoil exploding in Iran. While the administration focused intently on hammering out the details of the Egyptian-Israeli Treaty,  it seems first to have either intentionally or disinterest to have ignored the Shah’s slow demise in Iran for much of 1978; then it not reach consensus on how to interact with the radical Islamic anti-American clerical regime in Iran, or how or when to use force against the new political reality emerging in Iran.  What if the administration had acted on intelligence hints in early 1977 that Iran might be ripe for political change?  Could the Carter administration have avoided the Shah’s quick demise and the rise of the Khomeyni regime? There are State Department officials who at the time and afterwards have supported that premise. Adherence to the Egyptian-Israeli treaty, US presidential distance from Israeli leaders about the management of the territories and toward the Palestinians, and the resilience of the radical Islamic regime in Iran, have stood the test of time. 

Looking back four decades later, the results of Carter’s foreign policy in the Middle East changed its political landscape in ways that no other president had done previously or since. 

As for the Egyptian-Israeli Treaty itself, it was signed sixteen months after Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem. More than any other political leader, he kept the diplomatic car running, with his foot on the accelerator, cleverly shifting gears and giving gas when it was necessary. The final contents of the treaty demonstrated that he made extraordinary compromises over his initial demands for full Israeli withdrawal from all the territories and the promotion of Palestinian political self-determination.  The treaty contains nine articles, a military annex, an annex dealing with the relations between the parties, and agreed understandings interpreting the main articles of the treaty, and side letters signed by both sides interpreting key phrases and concepts mentioned in the treaty. The treaty’s foundation included UNSC Resolutions 242 and 338, recognizing the territorial integrity of all states in the area. It ended the state of war between Cairo and Jerusalem, established permanent borders, noted commitments to refrain from acts or threats of violence between them, and an exchange of ambassadors. It affirmed Israel’s right to freedom of navigation through the international waters in the Middle East (Straits of Tiran and Gulf of Aqaba) major causes of the June 1967 war.   Critical for Israel was the inclusion of Article 6 in the treaty  which essentially said that Egypt had a priority of obligation to observe this treaty with Israel over all other treaties Egypt had or would have with other states. In other words, Egypt would not come to the aid of an Arab state that might be in a military conflict with Israel. In a separate Israel-U.S. Memorandum of Agreement concluded the same day as the treaty, the U.S. spelled out its commitments to Israel including a promise to supply Israel with oil, should it not be able to obtain oil supply from Egypt as promised in the treaty.

 Lessons Learned and long term impact from Egyptian-Israeli Negotiations 

  • As fierce nationalists, Begin and Sadat zealously defended their prerogatives not to have any other entity or state, including the United States dictate to them, the content or pace of political negotiations and what they deemed their national security requirements. Both carefully listened to the Carter administration, but they retained to themselves exclusive determination of what those national priorities were or would be.
  • Both represented mature states, not dysfunctional ones, or an organization, and each accepted the sovereign legitimacy of the other. 
  • Reaching an agreement with the other enhanced respective national interests. Israel could not reject a once-in-a-generation opportunity to secure diplomatic recognition through a peace treaty with the most populous and powerful Arab state. At the end of the day, Sadat could not allow his path-breaking November 1977 visit to Jerusalem to go unrewarded without the full return of Israeli-held Sinai, the removal of Israel’s Sinai settlements and a deepened relationship with the United States.
  • Egyptian and Israeli leaders made core political trade-offs. Egypt “violated” a 1967 Arab commitment for “no peace, no negotiation, and no recognition of Israel.” Begin uprooted settlements despite enormous domestic criticism. 
  • Egypt set a diplomatic precedent for Arab states. Each could and did reach treaties with Israel based on promoting national self-interests, Jordan-1994, UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and the Sudan in 2020, and still publically advocate for the Palestinians. 
  • Egypt and Israel pulled closer to the United States, despite little progress made in resolving the issue of Palestinian rights.
  • Israel focused on securing its other borders and on managing internal requirements – economy, new immigrants, matters of religion and identity. 
  • Forty years later, no new major Arab-Israeli war had occurred. 
  • A major presidential foreign policy success did not automatically translate into domestic political support and votes as Carter found out in the upcoming 1980 US presidential election.