Eyn Kleynikayt!

Gershom Gorenberg

My recent column for Hadassah Magazine on the Egyptian revolution and preserving peace with Egypt is now online.

The news came over the radio on a Thursday evening.

Indeed, if you were in downtown Jerusalem, the news blared into the street from radios turned to top volume in every café and falafel joint at the same time, as loud as the shofar of the End: Anwar al-Sadat, the president of Egypt, the enemy incarnate—the man who on Yom Kippur just four years before had launched a war that shattered Israel’s defenses and confidence and left it a country of bereaved parents, of war widows and of orphans too young to remember their parents—would be arriving at Ben-Gurion International Airport in 48 hours. He was coming to make peace.

If Israel Radio had announced that Martians were landing at Ben-Gurion that evening in November 1977, if it had announced that gravity would be repealed in the morning, the news would have done less to overturn Israelis’ basic understanding of the universe.

In the immediate sense, Sadat was accepting an invitation from Menahem Begin, the prime minister whose election earlier that year had apparently signified the victory of intransigence toward Arabs and suspicion toward the world. In a slightly longer-term perspective, Begin had responded with alacrity to Sadat’s offer a few days earlier to come to Jerusalem. It would take close to a year and a half from Sadat’s words before the Knesset “I have come…in order that we may establish peace” to the actual signing of the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. The psychological revolution, though, began when his visit was announced, even before he arrived.

Thirty-three years later, on January 25th of this year, another revolution started—in Tahrir Square in Cairo. Led by young Egyptians frustrated with corruption, repression and economic stagnation—not by Islamic extremists—it quickly led to the fall of President Hosni Mubarak and the prospect of democratic elections in Egypt this September. Arguably, Sadat’s visit and the January 25th revolution are the two nonviolent events that have most altered the Middle East in living memory.

In the years between them, however, the sense of miracle and wonder among both Israelis and diaspora Jews produced by peace with Egypt faded to acceptance, boredom, disappointment and sometimes ignorance.

Outside Israel, I have heard impassioned remarks from people who believe Israel got a raw deal, perhaps forced on it by then-American President Jimmy Carter. Inside Israel, complaints about the cold peace—like the earlier objections to withdrawing from the Sinai—have come from the political right.

Perhaps the most extreme comments by a major politician came from Avigdor Lieberman, who reportedly told ambassadors from the former Soviet Union in 2001 that Israel needed to be ready to respond to Arab provocations, including purportedly hostile acts by Egypt, and that one Israeli policy option was “bombing runs against the Aswan Dam.”

More subtly, Benjamin Netanyahu questioned the value of peace between Israel and a dictatorship in his 1993 book,A Place Among the Nations (Bantam) and declared that to make real peace possible, “the first order of business…is to press the Arab regimes to move toward democracy.”

Nonetheless, when the uprising began in Egypt, both Netanyahu and Lieberman—now Israel’s prime minister and foreign minister—warned European diplomats that the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime threatened the peace agreement.

Putting aside the irony of that reversal, the Egyptian revolution does raise a number of critical questions. Looking back, what have Israel—and, for that matter, Egypt—actually gained from the peace accord? Looking forward, what are the odds that a new regime in Egypt will keep the agreement?

Lest one forget, notes Arye Naor, who served as cabinet secretary under Begin, the first thing that Israel got out of the treaty with Egypt was, quite simply, “Peace—eyn kleynikayt!” That is Yiddish for “no small matter.”

Naor, now a professor of public policy at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, explains, “Were it not for the agreement that Begin signed with Sadat, it is reasonable to assume that Israel would have had to win at least one more war against Egypt.” Nice as it is to win, “in our reality, every military victory is also a loss.” Here Naor’s voice turns as stern as Begin’s.

Read the rest here, and return to South Jerusalem to comment.

1 thought on “Eyn Kleynikayt!”

  1. The final sentence of the article does not follow from what came before. In fact, one would expect the opposite conclusion, that extraordinary caution is needed during times of violent change beyond Israel’s control.

    The other thing that struck me, once again, is the article’s identification of peace accords with peace. With Egypt we happened to have had both, but that was a contingent fact. We’ve had one without the other (the PLO: agreement without peace, Jordan: peace without agreement).

    Nobody’s too worried about Egyptian tanks rolling down Dizengoff Avenue. But as the author says, there’s nothing about a peace agreement that will keep Egypt from supporting armed militias against Israel. The author tacitly admits that Netanyahu and Lieberman are right: the change in Egypt is not likely to go in Israel’s favor.

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