Thirty-three years ago, in 1978, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin signed the Camp David Peace Accords, with assistance from U.S. President Jimmy Carter. That diplomatic breakthrough led to a formal peace treaty in 1979 that has been the linchpin of Israel's security ever since.
President Sadat was denounced by other Arab countries for "selling out" to Israel and acquiescing in its continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, which Israel seized in the 1967 war. Public opposition in Egypt continued to run high, and in 1981 Sadat was assassinated at a public gathering in Cairo. General Hosni Mubarak succeeded him and maintained peace and cooperative relations with Israel for twenty-nine years. Last February, Mubarak was forced to resign after massive public protests against him.
Egypt as key to peace. Egypt's pivotal role in maintaining Middle East peace cannot be overemphasized. With 83 million people, a crucial strategic location, and the strongest and best-equipped military in the Middle East, it holds the key to peace in that region. So long as Mubarak remained in charge, Israel had little reason to fear a new Arab-Israeli war.
This favorable outlook came into question when the "Arab Spring" engulfed Egypt in January, leading to Mubarak's downfall. His replacement by an interim military council raises the possibility that the 1979 treaty with Israel may be in jeopardy. Many protestors who brought down Mubarak's government also denounced Israel's occupation of the West Bank territory and its blockade of the Gaza Strip. Such protests against Israel were banned during Mubarak's long rule.
Two weeks ago, relations worsened between Israel and Egypt when an Israeli troops fired on and killed five Egyptian security personnel in the Sinai Peninsula. This caused a near-rupture in relations and anti-Israel demonstrations in Cairo. A serious breach in relations was averted when Israel's defense minister, Ehud Barak, hastened to Cairo, expressed regret, and launched an investigation. The deaths of Egyptian soldiers complicates the task of Cairo's interim government to maintain good relations with Israel while the country gears up for elections this fall.
Palestinian statehood. The United Nations will take up the question of Palestinian statehood this month, and the event will intensify anti-Israel sentiment in Arab countries and the wider Muslim world. President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority says he will first take the issue to the U.N. Security Council and is prepared for a veto by the United States, which favors direct negotiations. Abbas will then approach the 197 member General Assembly, where there is wide support for his position and where no country has a veto. ("Abbas Affirms Palestinian Bid for U.N. Membership," New York Times, Sept. 6)
As a result, Palestine would bed upgraded to non-member status in the General Assembly, but not full membership in the U.N. President Abbas believes this will enhance Palestine's efforts to negotiate a peace treaty with Israel, based on 1967 borders with adjustments.
A major question is whether Israel and the Palestinian Authority can contain demonstrations, and potential violence, that may erupt in the West Bank and Gaza after the U.N. votes. Israel is providing training for security teams in their West Bank settlements in anticipation of trouble. Large demonstrations supporting the Palestinian cause are expected in other Arab countries, notably in Egypt.
Israel's isolation. With future relations with Egypt in doubt and negotiations with the Palestinians on hold, Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, faces a crisis in relations with Turkey, Israel's former strategic ally and friend.
Turkey's government suspended diplomatic relations with Israel and expelled its ambassador two weeks ago after Netanyahu refused to apologize for the deaths of eight Turkish citizens abroad a Turkish ship that carried humanitarian aid to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Israel maintains a blockade of Gaza to prevent arms from entering the area.
Turkey's foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, declared last week that "Turkey will take whatever measures it deems necessary to ensure freedom of navigation in the eastern Mediterranean." News reports in Ankara suggest this may include naval escorts for Turkish boats destined for Gaza. ("Diplomatic Strains Intensify Between Turkey and Israel." New York Times, Sept 6).
Washington's dilemma. The White House and State Department find themselves in a delicate diplomatic situation. Turkey is a NATO ally and Egypt has been a close friend for many years. Israel too has long maintained a strategic relationship with Washington.
If major demonstrations break out across the Middle East when the U.N. votes on Palestinian statehood, and Egypt and Turkey give strong diplomatic support to the Palestinians, President Obama faces a difficult choice: Does he fully support Israel and jeopardize U.S. relations with Ankara and Cairo? Or, does he tell Prime Minister Netanyahu that the United States cannot deny the Palestinians their right to an independent country free from military occupation?
File last modified on Friday, 16-SEP-2011 1:31 PM EST