The End of Israeli Impunity

The End of Israeli Impunity

The remaining Egyptian presidential candidates have one thing in common: they will make Israel's life harder.


Menachem Begin, Jimmy Carter and Anwar el-Sadat at Camp David, 1978.Mohamed Morsi, chairman of the Egyptian Freedom and Justice Party, and Ahmed Shafik, a former prime minister, will both seek public support on the June 16–17 runoff election. They have little in common. Mr. Morsi represents the theocratic agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood, while Mr. Shafik, who belongs to the old guard of President Mubarak's regime, offers a secular program. Yet there is one theme that unites the two finalists, as well as most other candidates who were dropped in the first round: they all strongly criticize the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and Israel’s settlement policy. Both have declared that if Israel will not get involved in serious negotiations with the Palestinians on the two-state solution, Egypt will feel free to review the Camp David accord, signed in September 1978 by President Anwar el-Sadat and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin.

It is too early to predict what they mean by "reviewing" the accords. It will be difficult to cool further the diplomatic, cultural and economic relationship between the countries. Relations have been nearly frozen since Mubarak’s removal from office. A long-standing deal under which Israel was supplied with Egyptian natural gas is practically dead. The Israeli embassy in Cairo was ransacked by an angry mob last September. Israeli journalists are not allowed to visit Egypt, and very few businessmen dare to enter the country. On a different level, Egypt is leading the Arab diplomatic campaign calling on the international community to force Israel to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).


Since Egypt and Israel have a mutual interest in preventing Al Qaeda from penetrating into the Sinai Peninsula, it is unlikely that the new government in Cairo will cut the lines of communication between Egypt and Israeli intelligence. The new president will learn soon enough that a decision to violate the peace treaty with Israel will spur a decision by the U.S. Congress to cut the generous economic support that Egypt has been enjoying as a result of this treaty. Added tensions between Cairo and Jerusalem could also affect Egypt's access to American weapons.

Knowing that, Israel takes into consideration that even after more than thirty years, the peace treaty with Egypt remains a contract between leaderships and not between the two peoples. Now that the Egyptian people have a voice, their leaders will have to listen. Since the economic situation in Egypt makes it difficult for the leadership to feed the people with more than bread and hummus, they feed them with free hatred of Israel and its American allies.

Unfortunately, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's settlement policy—and President Obama's helplessness to influence it—makes it easy to market animosity against Israel. A brief look at the Palestinian Chapter of the 1978 Camp David Accords, accompanied by a comparison with the 2012 map of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, demonstrates that this document has become irrelevant.

For instance, in 1978, Israel and Egypt agreed there should be transitional arrangements for the West Bank and Gaza over a period not exceeding five years. President Jimmy Carter was also a witness to Israel's written commitment to withdraw its military government and civilian administration as soon as a self-governing authority could be freely elected by the inhabitants of these areas. At this stage, Israeli armed forces were to withdraw into specified security locations.

The Camp David Accords drew a clear time line of no more than five years for the negotiations that were to resolve, among other matters, the location of the boundaries and security arrangements. It stressed, "The solution from the negotiations must also recognize the legitimate right of the Palestinian peoples and their just requirements." The parties agreed that Egypt and Israel would work together and with other interested parties to establish mutually acceptable procedures for a prompt, just and permanent resolution to the refugee problem.

Exactly thirty years ago, American efforts to facilitate autonomy talks between Israel and Egypt were sidetracked by the outbreak of the June 1982 Lebanon war. Some of the ideas, such as a five-year interim period with delayed negotiations on the final status settlement, were incorporated into the 1993–95 Oslo accords. However, eighteen years after the Oslo accords created the Palestinian authority, Israel controls of 62 percent of the West Bank (Area C) and 100 percent of East Jerusalem, while maintaining a full closure of the Gaza Strip.

Since Israel signed the Camp David Accords, it has shown little intention of following up the Sinai withdrawal with redeployment from the West bank. On the contrary—while in 1978 there were some twenty-one thousand settlers in forty small settlements in the West Bank, today there are more than three hundred and thirty thousand settlers in 146 settlements, including three cities, and three thousand people in small, illegal outposts. Most Israeli governments encouraged Jews to move to the occupied territories by offering them cheap housing and other benefits, as well as by building a number of industrial zones and a college.

For many years, the Egyptian regime allowed Israel to have it both ways: to enjoy the benefits of peace with the most important Arab country while perpetrating a reality in the occupied territories that even the United States, Israel's closest ally, believes to be illegal. The Israeli leaders adopted Prime Minister Menachem Begin's perception that the Palestinian chapter in the Camp David Accords was just a fig leaf for the Egyptians. He believed the Israeli occupation didn't really bother Sadat, but he needed to show the Arab world that he didn't betray the Palestinians or turn his back on the Arab consensus. This was partially true at times during the last thirty years, but it is definitely not the case today. The Al Jazeera TV network will bring into the living rooms of millions of Egyptians the next images of Israeli soldiers chasing Palestinian demonstrators. And the Egyptian populace isn’t likely to let its leaders keep business as usual vis-à-vis the Jewish State.

The future of the Israeli-Egyptian relationship is not entirely in the hands of the Israelis. Israeli decision makers cannot determine who will be the leader of their next-door neighbor. If the Israelis wish to maintain their strategic interest in the neighborhood, they must realize that, whichever way the Egyptian elections go—whether toward a new, democratic era or a theocratic regime—it will be a dramatic step toward the end of Israel's impunity season.

Akiva Eldar is the chief political columnist and an editorial writer for Haaretz. His columns also appear regularly in the Ha'aretz-Herald Tribune edition.