Is peace with Egypt paying off?

JERUSALEM (JTA) — On the eve of another round of talks on Palestinian statehood, Israelis are looking back to another peace summit that was indisputably more ambitious and successful.

Thirty years ago this week, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat flew to Israel for a landmark visit that paved the way for the first-ever normalization of ties between Israel and an Arab state.

Prime Minister Menachem Begin embraced Sadat, who on Nov. 20, 1977 made his message of friendship clear in a speech to the Knesset.

“Today I tell you, and I declare it to the whole world, that we accept to live with you in permanent peace based on justice,” Sadat said. “We do not want to encircle you or be encircled ourselves by destructive missiles ready for launching, nor by the shells of grudges and hatreds.”

Sadat’s remarks stand in stark contrast to today’s circumstances between Israel and the Palestinians. To many Israelis, they are also a reminder of the ways the peace between Israel and Egypt has fallen short.

When peace was signed with Egypt, other Arab countries followed. Jordan established full relations with Israel in 1994, while Tunisia, Mauritania, Morocco and Qatar set up lower-level trade ties.

“The Arab states all want peace with Israel,” said Jacky Hugi, an Israeli expert on Arab affairs. “Some have made peace, others need a dividend before doing so and a third group maintains ties with Israel in secret.”

Peace with the Palestinians, who signed their first accords with the Israelis in 1993, has proven more difficult, however.

The current Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, heads to Annapolis next week in a bid to restart negotiations with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Arab states — including, perhaps, Israel’s oldest neighboring foe, Syria — may join.

Olmert traveled to Egypt on Tuesday to confer with President Hosni Mubarak on how to make Annapolis work. Political analysts predicted Mubarak would press the Arab League, whose foreign ministers are to convene in Cairo on Thursday, to endorse the U.S.-led conference.

“This is the healthiest and best sign of the robust relations between the countries,” Shalom Cohen, Israel’s ambassador to Egypt, said in an interview with Israel Radio. “I think that the dialogue between Israel and Egypt over the years has proved itself and passed the test.”

Cohen, who was quick to point out the depth of economic cooperation between Egypt and Israel, also noted that bilateral ties are mostly silent.

“The real progress is not talked about, is not reported,” he said.

Cohen’s remark may strike many Israelis as a euphemism for the one-sided nature of ties between the two countries.

While Israel has supplied a steady and lucrative influx of tourists to Egypt, especially its Red Sea resorts, reciprocation has been scant.

Egyptian professional unions long have boycotted Israel. The Egyptian media, which largely are controlled by the Mubarak regime, regularly inveigh against the Jewish state with anti-Semitic caricatures.

Some Israeli analysts say Egypt must tread carefully because many Egyptians believe Sadat betrayed Egypt’s role as “mother of the Arab nation” by signing a deal with Israel that did not guarantee a state for the Palestinians.

The Mubarak regime must pay lip service as well to an Islamist political opposition that refuses to accept Israel’s existence. Radical Islamist assassins killed Sadat in 1981.

“Despite the progress, much still remains to be done apropos the peace between the two countries,” the Israeli Foreign Ministry said in a statement, “such as bringing the populations themselves closer together, encouraging a broader cultural dialogue, increasing tourism and getting better acquainted.”

“Israel aspires to have the peace with Egypt, which is already considered to have borne real fruits in the intergovernmental dialogue, turn into a lively, productive peace on the level of the two peoples and two cultures as well,” the statement said.

More pressing for Israel right now is the ongoing smuggling of weapons to the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip from neighboring Egypt. Some Israeli officials have accused Cairo of not doing enough to crack down on the smugglers, and sympathetic U.S. lawmakers have threatened to trim congressional aid to Egypt as a punitive measure.

Responding to the pressure, an Egyptian official told Israel’s daily Ma’ariv this week that major efforts were being invested to starve Gaza of arms.

“We have no interest in nurturing a radical regime on our border,” said the official, who was quoted anonymously — an indication of the care the Mubarak regime takes not to identify too closely with Israeli interests to avoid angering Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, a kindred movement to Hamas.

Fear of an eventual Islamist takeover of Egypt has spurred increased U.S. support for Mubarak, despite his poor record on democratic reform, and quietly stirred security concerns in Israel.

Egypt’s recent announcement that it would pursue a nuclear energy program had some Israeli experts wondering whether Cairo would pursue an atomic arsenal to shore up its already formidable conventional forces.

A poll by Israel’s Channel 2 TV found that 50 percent of Israelis now believe it was a mistake to return the Sinai, an oil-rich strategic buffer, to Egypt under the Begin-Sadat peace deal. Forty percent backed the handover, while the rest were undecided.

Israel’s jitters are more pronounced given the rocket salvoes from Gaza and latent terrorist threats in the West Bank. Olmert has spoken of ceding more territory to the Palestinians under a peace deal with Abbas, but not until the latter can prove his security mettle.

“The Annapolis meeting that the U.S. administration is pushing to host this autumn is not about making any breakthrough in the history of Arab-Israeli relations, unlike Sadat’s gamble of visiting Jerusalem,” Dina Ezzat wrote in the Egyptian weekly Al-Ahram.

Ezzat said, however, that Annapolis may have indirect payoffs, either on the Syrian front or in enlisting discreet Arab support for any future U.S. preemptive action against Iran’s nuclear program.

“Arab officials may not talk much about it, but they do not deny it either: American officials have been promising support for some Palestinian rights in Annapolis in return for a freeze of any public Arab criticism of U.S. plans — or even perhaps their implementation — to attack Iran,” Ezzat wrote.

With Olmert keen to throw his weight behind a diplomatic initiative that could work, some in Israel see talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad as an attractive option, even if it means ceding the Golan Heights.

Assad has been unclear on whether he will show up at Annapolis despite sending out peace overtures since last year’s Lebanon war.

“We must remember this painful truth today, when coming to brandish the axe of war against Iran, and especially against Syria: There is great similarity between Sadat of 1977 and Bashar Assad of 2007,” Hugi said. “Like Assad today, Sadat wanted peace, but warned in advance that if the stolen land was not returned by negotiations, there would be no choice but to employ force.”

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