Would Israel have handed the Sinai to Egypt had it known that, 30 years later, peace would be hanging on by a thread?
By MOSHE GIT
The Sinai Peninsula is more than twice the area of Israel, and it was virtually unpopulated, making it a prime spot for Israeli expansion. Add to that its strategic significance — being a desert, it constituted a formidable barrier against Egyptian threats and it protected the sea straits access to the Israeli southern port of Eilat. Add the fact that flourishing Israeli settlements were already established there, and one can see the magnitude of Israel’s sacrifice in signing on to the peace agreement with Egypt.
(The shipping embargo Egypt imposed on the Straits of Tiran, south of Eilat, was the casus belli for the Six-Day War; and Moshe Dayan, the renowned Israeli general, proclaimed afterwards that it was preferable for Israel to retain control of the straits without peace, than to have peace without the control.)
After signing the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt, Israeli leaders realized that the reality of “peace” left much to be desired. It was dubbed a “cold peace,” as very little of the social, tourism and economic ties that Israel envisioned actually materialized. Egyptian heads of state hardly paid a visit to Israel, and the drumbeat of anti-Israel propaganda continued apace.
True, the formalities of peace were largely kept. Air traffic was established, diplomatic relations on the ambassadorial level were formed, and the Israeli-Egyptian border was quiet.
But recently things have taken a significant turn for the worse. The Israeli embassy in Cairo was ransacked by a mob that ripped down the Israeli flag. The staff, including the Israeli ambassador, had to be hustled out of Egypt. More seriously, the Israeli-Egyptian border has become the most volatile, as the Egyptian armed forces have ceased to oversee the Sinai, turning it into a no-man’s-land accessible to gangs and anti-Israel terrorists.
Increasingly, anti-Israel voices are dominating the discourse in Egypt. The recent elections indicate that radical Islamist parties, which demand the cancelation of the peace accord with Israel and the regaining of Jerusalem, are gaining hegemony. But these kinds of voices aren’t new.
During the waning days before the Six-Day War, when Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser was engaged in sabre rattling, the Egyptian mob could be heard over the airwaves chanting: “Ya Gamal, Ya Habiv, Udrob Udrob Tel Aviv (Our beloved Gamal: onward, onward to Tel Aviv).”
Egypt’s affiliation with the Sinai has no historical root; Sinai became a part of Egypt just by chance. Historically, until the onset of the 20th century, the Sinai Peninsula had never been an integral part of Egypt. Great Britain, which controlled the Suez Canal and Egypt, strong-armed Turkey, which controlled what was then known as Palestine, to set the border between those two imperialist powers at the eastern end of the Sinai. This allowed the British more territory with which to defend their hold on the Suez Canal.
This demarcation line between Great Britain and Turkey is what today constitutes the border between Egypt and Israel. Had Turkey been more powerful then, it would have retained the Sinai — and the territory would then have become part of Israel.
In 1967, Israel assumed control of the Sinai by right, the right of self-defense. There was no reason for Israel to hand it back to Egypt. The Sinai was virtually empty of Egyptian inhabitants. Israel’s peace agreement with Egypt was, in fact, the trading of territory, to which Egypt’s claim was insubstantial, for a piece of paper.
Recent events have reinforced the already known fact that the common Egyptian despises Israel. The Egyptian mob hasn’t changed a bit since Nasser’s time. And President Hosni Mubarak is tried for being, God forbid, too close to Israel.
When former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was assassinated for signing a peace pact with Israel, I said to myself that, as deplorable as it was, there might be a potential blessing in the assassination. At that time, Israel hadn’t yet relinquished all of the Sinai. Sadat’s replacement, so I thought, might not follow Sadat’s course; and Israel, in turn, could realize that the process of handing back the Sinai in exchange for peace was purely wishful thinking. Alas, that wasn’t to be the case. The rise of Mubarak after the assassination allowed Egypt to regain the rest of Sinai.
Now, post-Mubarak, Egypt is shedding the mask of peace.
Obviously, it is too late for Israel to reverse course and retrieve the Sinai. Reportedly, a new Israeli ambassador has been dispatched to Egypt and a new embassy building is planned, but the future is increasingly dim.
Did Israel blunder 30 years ago in signing the “land for peace” accord with Egypt?
Moshe Git lives in Minnetonka.
(American Jewish World, 12.23.11)