For the first thirty years of Israel's existence, Egypt was its archenemy. The two countries fought a war per decade for four decades: 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973. President Anwar Sadat's historic decision of 1977 to achieve peace with Israel broke the

For the first thirty years of Israel's existence, Egypt was its archenemy. The two countries fought a war per decade for four decades: 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973. President Anwar Sadat's historic decision of 1977 to achieve peace with Israel broke the cycle. He believed Egypt could achieve its strategic goals by means other than war. When he declared his famous appeal for "No more wars," he was saying that Egypt could only regain sovereignty in Sinai by signing a peace treaty with Israel, relying on the assistance of the United States. It was a cold calculation. As articulated by Israel's second ambassador to Egypt, Moshe Sasson:

From the Egyptian perspective, that development was engendered neither by a devotion to peace as a value per se, nor by some sort of ideological shift. It was, in fact, motivated by a purely Egyptian national interest.[1]

The peace, between Egypt and Israel, expected to be lasting, solid, and irreversible, was, however, reached by a democratic state and an authoritarian regime; between a society of Western political culture and norms and an Arab-Muslim society with different attitudes regarding the character of peace, the parameters of truth, and the meaning of justice.

Therefore, the formal peace between Israel and its southern neighbor has been potentially reversible, almost by its nature, regardless of the fact that both sides have adhered to their peace treaty for a quarter of a century.

Today, the Egyptian perception of peace with Israel still regards the two countries to be in conflict in ways that could lead them to the brink of war. Egyptian attitudes to the relationship, depicted metaphorically as a "cold peace" for over twenty years, are laden with Egyptian popular animosity toward Israel, Zionism, and the Jewish people. Israel often protests the most visible manifestations of this animosity in the Egyptian press. State-controlled newspapers relentlessly demonize Israel and dehumanize the Jewish people and its leaders by publishing anti-Semitic articles and cartoons. But this is only a symptom of a much deeper problem, rooted in the way Egypt's rulers regard their peace with Israel.

While Israel has yearned for a real peace including normalization of all its relations with Egypt, to be followed by other Arab countries, Egypt has framed the peace with Israel in its narrowest possible interpretation. Egypt has assiduously amassed the fruits of peace, primarily U.S. aid on a large scale. But it has refused to see its diplomatic and cultural relations with Israel as a fruit of peace. Indeed, to the extent it must maintain such relations, it regards them as an embarrassment and a burden. Fouad Ajami has succinctly summarized the Egyptian-Israeli asymmetry in the peace equation: "Egypt has not committed itself to an intellectual struggle for peace."[2] The Egyptians have not yet adapted themselves to a true reconciliation with Israel, in large part because the Egyptian leadership has done nothing to transform public opinion and lead it in that direction.

What explains the attitude of Egypt's leaders? They still view Egypt's position vis-à-vis Israel as a zero-sum game. Israel is still considered by Cairo, if not an enemy, then certainly its main rival for regional hegemony and a dangerous competitor for the benefits of peace. Egyptian leaders since Sadat, namely President Husni Mubarak and 'Amr Musa, his main foreign policy hand for the last decade (first as foreign minister and now as secretary general of the Arab League), perceive the goal of the peace process as reducing Israel to its "natural dimensions" of the pre-June 1967 borders and divesting it of its strategic assets.[3] These include Israel's nuclear capabilities, which have been a central pillar in Egypt's perception of Israel as a constant strategic threat.[4] They also include the evolution of Israeli-Turkish strategic relations in recent years, a development that has become a major concern for Egyptian decision-makers, who portray it as a threat to regional stability.[5]

In accordance with this position, President Mubarak has effectively boycotted Israel, regardless of its government. Since assuming power in 1981, he has never paid an official visit to the State of Israel except once to attend the funeral of assassinated prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. All ties on the bilateral level between Egypt and Israel have been frozen including tourism, commerce, and industry—everything that characterizes peaceful relations beyond the strictly military definition. The twentieth anniversary of the Camp David accord on September 18, 1998—the agreement that produced the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty—passed in Egypt without public commemoration.[6] The message from above has been unequivocal: the peace with Israel might serve Egyptian interests, but it is nothing to celebrate.

Obstructive Diplomacy

It is not just that Egypt shuns Israel. It encourages other Arabs to do the same. When Egypt signed its peace agreement with Israel in 1979, Sadat challenged other Arabs to follow suit. Yet in 1993, when Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) reached the Oslo agreement, Egypt showed alarm. The agreement was achieved without Egypt's participation, and its leaders seemed put out that any other Arab should have a direct dialogue with Israel.

When Israel and Jordan signed a peace agreement in 1994, following direct negotiations between the two countries, Egypt launched a campaign to stop the tide. In particular, Egyptian diplomacy tried to nix normalization between Israel and some of the Arab countries in the Maghreb and the Persian Gulf.[7] In November 1994, an economic conference met in Rabat, offering hope for regional cooperation. Egypt acted truculently, bad-mouthing Arab-Israeli economic projects that might have competed with Egypt or might have allowed Gulf countries to trade directly with Israel, thus bypassing the Suez Canal.[8] When Shimon Peres later launched the idea of a Middle East common market, Egypt led the campaign against it. It was in Egypt that 200 politicians, professors, and other public figures described the Peres vision as "a looming danger threatening the future of the Arab nation."[9] They were simply following the government's cue.

Why have the Egyptians gotten in the way of other Arabs? Egypt has come to regard its treaty relations with Israel as a kind of monopoly, giving it added weight in the region and in Washington. If peace with Israel became the rule rather than the exception among Arab states, there would be less reason for the United States to reward Cairo with continued aid. Diplomacy is also one of Egypt's major exports. Over the years, the United States has invested an immense amount of energy in managing the Arab-Israeli peace process. Egypt extracts clear political benefits from its mediating role, but it has a structural interest in making sure that peace never spreads.[10]

This is why Egypt is so unnerved by Israeli Labor governments. Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, and Ehud Barak all tried to move the political process forward, and Cairo resented them for it. Egyptian policymakers were especially obstructive during the Rabin-Peres era, when Israel gained diplomatic momentum in the region. It was not an accident when, in 1995, then-prime minister Rabin mentioned "poisonous winds" blowing from the Egyptian foreign ministry.

By contrast, the postures and policies of Israel's Likud-led government between 1996-99 under Binyamin Netanyahu—a government antagonistic towards the Oslo accords and opposed to the emergence of a Palestinian state—suited Egypt just fine. During this period, Egypt regained the diplomatic initiative in the inter-Arab and international arena, posing as the only party able to extricate the peace process from its impasse.[11] Netanyahu became the target of gleeful Egyptian media bashing, inspired by President Mubarak, who did not bother to hide his animosity towards the Israeli prime minister.[12] During 1997, this mind-set induced a decision by Egyptian industry and business unions to freeze all commercial contacts with Israel and expel members of the Egyptian writers' and journalists' unions who verbally supported normalization.[13]

Egyptian obstructionism has been most in evidence in Cairo's relations with the Palestinians. Although the Egyptian government poses as a balanced peace broker, it envisions itself as the patron of the Palestinian Authority (PA), which it sees as a counterweight to Israel, and to which it has imparted its zero-sum concept of Arab-Israeli relations. In the 1990s, when the negotiations between Israel and the PA had reached a certain crossroads, Egyptian diplomacy lead by Musa often had a negative impact on the process. It was Musa who formulated and articulated the policy that linked full normalization of relations between Egypt and Israel with a final settlement between Israel and the Palestinians—and not before.[14] This has made Egypt less than eager to see the Palestinians move forward. Such was the case in December 1996 and January 1997 when Israeli officials accused Egypt of inducing the Palestinians to delay the ratification of the Hebron agreement.[15]

But the most conspicuous example was the Camp David negotiation between then-Israeli prime minister Barak and the PA's chairman Arafat in July 2000. Any analysis of the reasons for the outbreak of the so-called Al-Aqsa intifada should consider the negative role that Mubarak played in thwarting the Camp David summit. Not only did the Egyptian president refuse to assist President Clinton in convincing Arafat to move forward, Mubarak warned Arafat that the Palestinian leader would be viewed as a traitor if he accepted Clinton's proposals. Mubarak also put Arafat on notice that he had no license to make decisions on Jerusalem and its holy sites.[16] When Clinton tried to budge Arafat on Jerusalem, the Egyptian official and semiofficial media as well as mosque preachers vehemently attacked the U.S. administration.[17]

The Egyptian reaction to the eruption of Palestinian violence in September 2000 reflected almost a national catharsis. Then-foreign minister Musa declared almost with relief in an interview to the Lebanese newspaper As-Safir that the "peace process is finished." After an emergency Arab summit meeting convened in Cairo, he announced that "right now the resolute stance taken by the Palestinian people, and its resistance to Israel's conquest, are the top priority." Musa pledged that "Egypt will not establish new relations with Israel unless a redesigned peace process restores rights to Arabs." And he added that all necessary steps would be taken to prevent Israeli "infiltration" of the Arab world. Musa called the Arabs to assist the Palestinian intifada by taking a firm pan-Arab position and refusing to return to the "old negotiation frameworks."[18] None of this could be construed as constructive in any way.

Musa, surfing on a wave of anti-Israeli sentiment, echoed the street with his Nasserist pan-Arab rhetoric and played upon the deep-rooted paranoia and jealousy toward Israel. It made him a popular hero; the song "I love 'Amr Musa and I hate Israel" became a hit in Egypt in 2001.[19] Tens of thousands of Egyptians from all segments of the population went to demonstrations, demanding that Egypt sever relations with Israel. Mubarak, too, could not resist playing to the grandstand. On a number of occasions, he even explained away suicide attacks against Israel and determined that a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv—inside pre-1967 Israeli borders—did not constitute terrorism.[20] The Egyptian president was feeding the mood in the street, even as he was nourished by it.

In fact, stoking a low-intensity conflict between Israel and the Palestinians reflected the Egyptian reluctance to move beyond a cold and formal peace with Israel. The intifada offered Egypt an alternative to all-out war, a kind of war of attrition by proxy against Israel, which reflected an Egyptian expectation that the intifada would generate "new realities on all levels."[21] Even though an all-out war "was not in the cards," Mubarak spared no opportunity to make ominous-sounding threats about "entering the tunnel of the unknown."[22] (This deliberate ambiguity played also on Israel's memory that Mubarak was a full partner in Sadat's subterfuge that preceded Egypt's offensive in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.). The recall of the Egyptian ambassador from Israel in November 2000 fit within the parameters of a non-military, controlled conflict with Israel.

The Al-Ahram Cairo daily put the lie to Egypt's purported claim to be a peace broker.

What Israeli leaders have failed to understand is that Egypt cannot accept to see Israel enjoying the dividends of peace while waging war against the Palestinian people … Egypt is not a neutral mediator or party in the Arab-Israeli peace process. It is essentially an Arab party and the main backer of the Palestinians.[23]

In fact, Israeli leaders have usually understood that fact. American peace processors often have not.

Faded Glory

One sentiment accounting for this thinking on the part of virtually all Egyptian political leaders and intellectuals is a deep sense of national frustration. Egypt belongs to the large group of countries facing social, economic, and demographic challenges that threaten their internal stability. That fact is exacerbated by the contrast between Egypt's present state and its ancient legacy and even by its present predicament and the glory days of Egypt's pan-Arab leadership. Fouad Ajami has described the Egyptian collective psychology in these words:

At the heart of Egyptian life there lies a terrible sense of disappointment. The pride of modern Egypt has been far greater than its achievements … the gap between Egypt's sense of itself and its performance is impossible to ignore.[24]

Egypt has not derived much benefit from globalization and the new dominance of American-style capitalism. Not only do the Egyptians lack the technological infrastructure that would facilitate their competitiveness in the global market, but they also fear losing their cultural and religious identities. They regard globalization as a threat that must be contained, rather than an opportunity for increasing their freedoms.[25]

Moreover, the global economic slowdown and the post-September 11 shock have severely affected the Egyptian economy. The drop in tourism, lower oil prices, reduced incomes from the Suez Canal and from remittances from Egyptian workers abroad, have persuaded many Egyptians that globalization is just another form of exploitation. Mubarak, who has committed himself to achieving economic stabilization and sustainable growth, and who has promised to turn Egypt into an economic "tiger on the Nile," has failed to deregulate and privatize the economy. Although Cairo now admits that economic performance over the last few years has not been as good as initially claimed, most observers estimate the situation to be even gloomier. Egypt was awarded the title of "a toothless crocodile" at the beginning of 2002 by The Economist.[26]

The most vulnerable groups of Egyptian society suffer from increasing unemployment and poverty while resentment spreads among larger segments of the middle and lower-middle classes.[27] Extremes of wealth and poverty, while difficult to measure, have never seemed as wide as they are now. Many Egyptians feel they live under a "businessmen's regime" in which bureaucrats, high-ranking officers, and businessmen are complicit in one another's corruption.[28]

Egypt totters on the brink of third-world marginality. Its political and public opinion leaders, accustomed to a more elevated status, are in constant fear that Egypt might simply become irrelevant to the Middle East and to the rest of the Arabs. This mindset is conducive to saber rattling, especially among intellectuals, who are most acutely aware of Egypt's decline.

Egyptian intellectuals, including leftists and liberals, are the most vociferous opponents of peace with Israel. While Western intellectuals are usually conceived as generators of change, supporting universal peace, Egyptian intellectuals (like many Arab intellectuals) grow militant at the mention of peace with Israel. They conceive of the "Pharaoh's" peace with Israel as a betrayal. But since a military confrontation would be disastrous, they opt to express their dissent by opposing any form of dialogue with Israelis of any political stripe. Many of them are engaged in public activities that make Israel "an object of hatred for the ordinary Egyptian."[29] This effectively legitimizes the regime's cold peace policy by giving it the veneer of a trendy new Arabism. The leaders then seize upon rejection of Israel as an ego support system and a ready substitute for the articulation of any candid and practical vision of Egypt's future.


It is difficult to see any development that could change the dynamic of Egyptian-Israeli relations in a fundamental way. Assuming that the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians will stretch on for several years, with ups and downs, that Israel's relationship with Syria will continue to stagnate, and that Mubarak will last the full term of his presidency until 2005, it is difficult to see a point of departure for a new beginning. Absent that, more of the same is likely: little or no normalization, active discouragement of normalization by other Arabs, diplomatic activism to cast Israel as a nuclear wild card, and prodding the Palestinians to take one step forward—and then one step back.

In addition, there is a risk that relations could deteriorate from cold peace to low-intensity military tension. This could follow an Egyptian violation of the demilitarized status of the Sinai Peninsula or as a result of an Egyptian strategic decision to build up a nuclear deterrent.[30] The Egyptian minister of defense and war production, Muhammad Hussein at-Tantawi, was reported to have told a closed forum a few years ago that Egypt should prepare for a future war with Israel. He later denied the reports and praised the importance of "strategic peace" with Israel.[31] However, explaining his concept of peace, Tantawi was quoted as saying: "Peace does not mean relaxation … Any threat to any Arab or African country is a threat to Egypt's national security."[32]

Even though a strong army is a tradition in the Arab world and a status symbol for a powerful regime, Egypt has so far refrained from providing a reasonable and unequivocal explanation as to why and for what purpose the great part of U.S. aid has been invested in building one of the most modern and powerful armed forces in the Middle East.[33] In fact, this is one of the few areas in which the Egyptian state is more capable than it was two decades ago—thanks to U.S. assistance. Although Mubarak clearly has excluded war with Israel as an option, the capabilities he has built will outlast him, into the uncertainty of the post-Mubarak era.

The risk of a reversion to intensified conflict between Israel and Egypt could increase in the immediate post-Mubarak era, should the transition to a successor be marked by instability. Mubarak's successor might be forced to indulge Egypt's Islamists, at least initially, in order to consolidate power. The Islamist radicalization of the already religiously-awakened vast middle class could turn hostility toward Israel into the lowest common denominator between the regime and the Muslim Brethren. Collaboration between the Egyptian army and the militant Islamic organizations cannot be ruled out, because the Egyptian military (unlike the Turkish) is not the guardian of a secular ethos.

Unfortunately, there is no guarantee of an eternal peace between peoples, cultures, and states. But the spectrum between an all-out war and the peaceful utopia of the Biblical prophets is wide. Israel's former foreign minister, Abba Eban, encapsulated his insight of international relations and the role of diplomacy: "A prevented war is a kind of peace, the one and only kind of peace to prevail as long as states exist on earth." Eban later asserted that potential armed conflicts existing in our world outnumber the wars that have actually broken out.[34]

From this vantage point, the Israeli-Egyptian peace did break the one-war-a-decade cycle that characterized the period between 1948 and 1973. It has been a strategic asset for Israel and the United States. The problem is that it rests on foundations that Egypt's leaders are loath to maintain. Amin al-Mahdi, a courageous Egyptian intellectual and writer, in an interview to an Israeli journalist, was quoted as saying:

Israel believed that as a democracy it could make peace with dictatorial regimes. This is an illusion. Sadat for example completed the road to peace but not to democracy. Israel was glad with that peace but it is paying for the misunderstanding of the illusion … A regime that does not consider peace as a tool in service for its public but as a means for promoting its own political interests or to please the West or to gain some economic points, will retreat from peace once its expectations from that peace do not materialize.[35]

The prospect of such a retreat is not far-fetched. Nor is planning for the possibility unduly pessimistic.

But that planning is not underway. Israeli leaders and the public, both left and right, have by and large adjusted to the parameters of peace as dictated by Egypt. Indeed, some of them can be heard paying fawning tribute to the regional importance of Egypt and to Mubarak's ambitious pretensions. This is a poor substitute for what is more necessary than ever: a probing public debate over relations with Egypt.

Egypt's policy toward Israel may be a function of Egypt's problems, which are growing still deeper. But in the blame game for those problems, Egypt's leaders mislead their own people, by avoiding serious introspection and pointing an accusing finger at the peace with Israel (and the pax Americana of which it is a part). It is not clear what it would take to discourage and deter the habitual Israel-bashing of Egypt's ruling elite (so often accompanied by America-bashing among the intellectuals). What combination of incentives and disincentives might work better? Debate over this question often has been stifled, because Israel has so few peace partners, and the United States does not have a surfeit of Arab governments on which it can rely. But if Cairo's own policy is a prime reason that the circle of peace and friendship is so small, perhaps the time has come for another approach.

But beyond the issue of Egyptian rhetoric are larger questions about the long-term trajectory of Egypt's regional policy. Is Egypt effectively only in a state of temporary truce with Israel while it builds up its own military capabilities and incites others to erode Israel's strategic, political and economic assets? Is Egypt one more obstacle on the obstacle-strewn path to securing Palestinian and Arab acceptance of Israel? If the answer is yes, or maybe yes, how should Israel and the United States respond? These questions are not unrelated to questions Washington is already asking itself about whether Egypt under Mubarak is a liability or an asset in the U.S. effort to open the Arab Middle East to democracy and free markets.[36]

These questions must be asked with greater frequency, and with less complacency, right now. Later may be too late. Continued U.S. support for the Egyptian military is not the best guarantee of peace, which requires deeper roots in Egyptian society if it is to last. As the United States considers the mix of aid for a post-Mubarak Egypt, it would do well to ask whether its resources would be better applied to education for peace and democracy. Without a change in attitudes, there will be little to prevent a future ruler of Egypt from reversing the country's course as dramatically and suddenly as Sadat did with dire consequences for the entire region.

Dan Eldar is adjunct research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, Tel Aviv University. He was previously senior analyst at the Israeli prime minister's office.

[1] Moshe Sasson, "Egypt and Israel: Twenty Years after Peace," Middle East Insight, Jan.-Feb. 2001, p. 36.
[2] Fouad Ajami, The Dream Palace of the Arabs: A Generation's Odyssey (New York: Random House, 1998), p. 286.
[3] Ha'aretz (Tel Aviv), Aug. 26, 2001.
[4] Ami Ayalon, "Egypt," in Middle East Contemporary Survey (MECS) 1994, Ami Ayalon and Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, eds. (Boulder: Westview Press, 1997), p. 279; Steven A. Cook, "Egypt—Still America's Partner?" Middle East Quarterly, June 2000, pp. 3-12; Ajami, Dream Palace, p. 230.
[5] Ami Ayalon, "Egypt," in MECS 1998, Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, ed. (Boulder: Westview Press, 2001), p. 243; Al-Ahram Weekly (Cairo), Aug. 2-8, 2001.
[6] Ayalon, "Egypt," in MECS 1998, p. 243; Al-Ahram Weekly, Aug. 2-8, 2001.
[7] Cook, "Egypt—Still America's Partner?" p. 9; Ami Ayalon, "Egypt," in MECS 1995 (Boulder: Westview Press, 1998), p. 265.
[8] Ayalon, "Egypt," in MECS 1995, pp. 265-6.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Charles W. Freeman, Jr., "U.S.-Egyptian Defense Relations," in Egypt at the Crossroads: Domestic Stability and Regional Role, Phebe Marr, ed. (Washington: National Defense University Press, 1999), p. 204; Rosemary Hollis, "Capitalizing on Diplomacy," in Egypt at the Crossroads, p. 130.
[11] Ibrahim Nafi', "Unity above All," Al-Ahram Weekly, Dec. 13-19, 2001.
[12] Ayalon, "Egypt," in MECS 1998, p. 243.
[13] Meir Hatina, "Egypt," in MECS 1997, Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, ed. (Boulder: Westview Press, 1999), p. 326.
[14] The Jerusalem Report, Apr. 9, 2001.
[15] Ha'aretz, Oct. 25, 2000.
[16] Thomas Friedman, "The Egypt Game," The New York Times, Aug. 1, 2000; Al-Ahram Weekly, Aug. 24-30, Sept. 14-20, 2000, Dec. 28, 2000-Jan. 3, 2001.
[17] Ha'aretz, Aug. 6, 2000.
[18] Ibid., Oct. 25, 2000.
[19] The Washington Post, Feb. 8, 2001.
[20] The New York Times, Oct. 10, 2000; Ha'aretz, Oct. 22, 2000.
[21] Al-Ahram Weekly, Dec. 28, 2000-Jan. 3, 2001.
[22] Quoted in Daniel Pipes, "The Winds of War," The Jerusalem Post, Dec. 20, 2000.
[23] Mideast Mirror (London), Nov. 22, 2000; Al-Ahram (Cairo), Nov. 22, 2000.
[24] Ajami, The Dream Palace, p. 221; Ami Ayalon, "Egypt's Quest for Cultural Orientation," Data and Analysis (Tel Aviv: The Moshe Dayan Center, 1999), p. 18.
[25] Thomas Friedman, "One Country, Two Worlds," The New York Times, Jan. 28, 2000.
[26] Patrick Clawson and Amy W. Hawthorne, "Assessing the $959 Million in Accelerated Economic Aid to Egypt," Policy Watch, #591, Jan. 7, 2002, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, at
[27] Hanaa Kheir el-Din, "Economic Reform and Internal Stability," in Egypt at the Crossroads, p. 103; Clawson and Hawthorne, "Assessing the $959 Million."
[28] David Hirst, "A Middle Eastern Indonesia in the Making?" Mideast Mirror, Nov. 11, 1999.
[29] Sasson, "Egypt and Israel," pp. 36-7.
[30] Die Welt (Berlin), June 22, 2002.
[31] According to an Israeli intelligence document, as reported in Ha'aretz, Nov. 11, 1999.
[32] Hillel Frisch, "Guns and Butter in the Egyptian Army," Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA), June 2001, at
[33] Sasson, "Egypt and Israel," p. 36.
[34] Abba Eban, The New Diplomacy: International Affairs in the Modern Age (New York: Random House, 1983), pp. 400-1.
[35] Ha'aretz, Oct. 2, 2001.
[36] "The United States and Egypt—How Allied? A Debate," Middle East Quarterly, Dec. 2000, pp. 51-60.