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Mubarak's Legacy for Israel: Maintaining the Peace Treaty With Egypt

Despite two intifadas, two Lebanese wars, a war in Gaza and two Gulf wars, Mubarak's moderating policy kept turmoil from spilling over into regional conflict

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Arafat, Mubarak and Rabin during the Cairo Summit, June 11, 1993.
Arafat, Mubarak and Rabin during the Cairo Summit, June 11, 1993. Credit: Avi Ohayon / GPO
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Israeli-Egyptian relations had many ups and downs over Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's reign, which lasted from 1981 to 2011. The bottom line is that the bilateral peace treaty, signed just two years before Mubarak took office in 1979, survived through two Palestinian intifadas, two Lebanese wars, a war in the Gaza Strip and two Gulf wars.

“The fact that these conflicts didn’t spill over into a regional conflict was undoubtedly the result of Mubarak’s moderating policy and Egypt’s desire to maintain the peace treaty, despite all its critics at home and in the Arab world,” Meir Noema wrote in his Hebrew-language essay “Under American Patronage: Israel-Egypt Relations in the Mubarak Era.” If you ignore various mishaps, he added, one could say that the Mubarak era deepened the foundations of peace between the two countries.

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When Mubarak came into power following the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981, he announced that he would honor the peace treaty with Israel despite being less enthusiastic about it than his predecessor. After all, one of the greatest benefits of the treaty, from Egypt’s perspective, was about to take place – Israel’s return of the Sinai Peninsula in April 1982.

But just six weeks later, in June 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon and the Lebanon War began. This was the first serious test of the new peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.

Mubarak speaks with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in Alexandria, Egypt, August 18, 1981.
Mubarak speaks with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in Alexandria, Egypt, August 18, 1981.Credit: AP

After Israel’s Lebanese Christian allies massacred Palestinians in Beirut’s Sabra and Shatila refugee camps later that year, Egypt recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv and announced that he would return only after Israel withdrew from Lebanon. But the peace treaty remained in force.

“The peace treaty’s first and most important test led to the creation of a framework that characterized relations between Israel and Egypt in the following years and set ironclad rules that would not be broken through the entirety of Mubarak’s reign,” Noema wrote.

Under these rules, Egypt decided not to cancel the peace treaty even if Israel went to war with another Arab entity. It also refused to give in to the aggressive calls in the Arab world to launch a war against Israel.

On the other hand, Mubarak’s Egypt prevented full normalization with Israel as long as the Palestinian issue remained unresolved. It also permitted Egyptians to vent their anger in the Egyptian press, both establishment and opposition, including through venomous anti-Semitic attacks on Israel.

After Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who signed the peace treaty, was replaced by Yitzhak Shamir in 1983, Israel’s relations with Egypt worsened. The fact that the Egyptian ambassador still hadn’t returned to Tel Aviv was a violation of the treaty, Israel charged. Yet Israel simultaneously urged its friends in the United States not to reduce American aid to Egypt.

Abbas, Sharon and Mubarak at Sharm al-Sheik, Egypt, February 8, 2005.
Abbas, Sharon and Mubarak at Sharm al-Sheik, Egypt, February 8, 2005.Credit: AP

In 1984, when Israel formed a national unity government headed by Shimon Peres, the ice in its relationship with Egypt thawed. Thanks to Peres, the Israeli-Egyptian dispute regarding ownership of the resort town of Taba was referred to international arbitration in 1986. After Egypt won and Taba was returned to it, the relationship between Peres and Mubarak improved and Cairo returned its ambassador to Israel.

In 1992, the relationship further warmed with Yitzhak Rabin’s election as prime minister. Rabin chose Cairo as the site of his first overseas visit, and at the end of it, Mubarak announced a new era in the bilateral relationship.

In line with that pledge, Egypt played an important role in the Oslo negotiation process with the Palestinians. It hosted the ongoing negotiations in Taba after Israel and the PLO signed their Declaration of Principles in Washington in 1993. And in 1994, the agreement that handed over much of Gaza and the West Bank city of Jericho to the Palestinians was signed in Cairo – first by Yasser Arafat and then-Foreign Minister Peres, and later by Arafat and Rabin.

The relationship soon soured again, when Egypt felt that other Arab states were progressing too quickly toward normalization with Israel, despite Israel's refusal to withdraw from all the territory it captured in 1967. Ties were almost completely frozen after Benjamin Netanyahu was elected for his first term as prime minister in 1996.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak welcomes Israeli President Shimon Peres at Sharm el Sheikh airport, 2009.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak welcomes Israeli President Shimon Peres at Sharm el Sheikh airport, 2009. Credit: Amos Ben Gershom / GPO

In 2000, Egypt hosted two conferences that were meant to calm the seething Israeli-Palestinian front. Participants in the first, at Sharm el-Sheikh, included Arafat, then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak, then-U.S. President Bill Clinton, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, King Abdullah of Jordan and Mubarak. The second, in Cairo, was an Arab summit.

Both summits proved that Egypt was working to prevent a regional escalation and wouldn’t capitulate to the aggressive anti-Israel line pushed by other Arab states, even at tense moments.

Later, as the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians continued to deteriorate during the second intifada, Egypt once again took the harsh step of recalling its ambassador to Israel. Yet even then, it continued working to calm the situation. Among other initiatives, Egypt intervened in internal Palestinian politics to try and promote a cease-fire between the various Palestinian factions and Israel in 2003.

A year later, Egypt freed Azzam Azzam, an Israeli Arab who had been jailed in Egypt on charges of spying for Israel, and also signed a trade agreement with Israel. And in 2005, Egypt signed a long-term deal to sell natural gas to Israel.

Hosni Mubarak  speaks with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting at the presidential palace in Cairo July 18, 2010.
Hosni Mubarak speaks with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting at the presidential palace in Cairo July 18, 2010. Credit: REUTERS

During this period, Mubarak developed a very warm relationship with then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, whom he described as the only Israeli leader capable of bringing peace.

In 2005, Israel and the Palestinians signed a cease-fire agreement in Sharm el-Sheikh that brought the second intifada to an end. Later, the Palestinian factions signed the so-called Cairo Declaration, in which they promised to stop military operations against Israel.

Egypt supported Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, and it was at that time that Israel approved a change in the bilateral peace treaty that allowed Egypt to deploy hundreds of soldiers along the Gaza border. During the Second Lebanon War of 2006, Egypt secretly supported Israel, out of its desire to thwart Iran.

Yet throughout his 30 years in office, Mubarak refused to make an official visit to Israel. He only set foot in Jerusalem once – to attend Rabin's funeral in 1995.

Mubarak consoles Yitzhak Rabin's widow at his the funeral in Jerusalem, November 6, 1995.
Mubarak consoles Yitzhak Rabin's widow at his the funeral in Jerusalem, November 6, 1995.Credit: SANTIAGO LYON,AP

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