Seizing the Day and Fixing the Sinai

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be wise to consider learning from the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. On May 17, 1977 at 11:30 PM, Egyptian Vice President Hosni Mubarak learned that Menachem Begin had surprisingly won the Israeli elections. Mubarak woke President Sadat, saying, “Mr. President, I have bad news for you, Begin will be Prime Minister.” Sadat turned to Mubarak and surprisingly (but providentially) responded, “No, Hosni, good news. We can do business with him.”

With recent and serious lawlessness in the Sinai making daily headlines and the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty meaning less and less to the peoples of both countries, Netanyahu can and should begin to do business with Egypt’s newly elected president, Mohamed Morsi. There is a unique opportunity today to avoid dancing around the peace treaty, as has been done for the past few decades, and instead to commit to reviving it in ways that strategically benefit both countries—and in ways that might even improve the lukewarm relationship between the two peoples.

The greatest opportunities for diplomatic achievements come at moments of crisis. The crisis this time began in the Sinai a few weeks ago, when armed terrorists killed sixteen Egyptian soldiers and attempted to continue on into Israel to incite further violence. Since 1967, the Sinai has been a point of contention between every generation of Israelis and Egyptians, and the events of this month seemed even more strenuous given the new and, as of yet, untested Egyptian leadership. At first, the Israelis, who are suspicious of the Islamist leadership to the point of paranoia, and the Egyptians, who seem all too eager to take control of the largely demilitarized Sinai, dealt with the crisis surprisingly well; Israeli and Egyptian generals even met to discuss their investigations.

Soon after that, though, tensions began to mount. Netanyahu unnecessarily made it clear that “when it comes to the security of the citizens of Israel, the State of Israel must and can rely only on itself,” instead of using the moment of crisis to stand in solidarity and friendship with the Egyptian forces. And the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood continued to cement their anti-Western reputation by publically suspecting Israeli culpability in the attack, an obviously illogical and unfounded accusation. Then, making things tangibly worse, when Egyptian tanks began to enter the Sinai to restore order and security, Israel responded by announcing that such an action was in violation of the peace treaty.

Now that the peace treaty has been placed on the table, both sides should not avoid a candid discussion concerning its stipulations (just what both sides are, understandably, very tempted to evade). Just a few years ago, the military appendix that details the military arrangements for the Sinai was adjusted to allow for greater Egyptian military presence. Today, the discussions must go further. With Israelis and Egyptians still not trusting each other, the treaty needs to be made relevant for the 21st century. This month’s security problems prove that Israeli-Egyptian cooperation is a strategic necessity; the Sinai should therefore become a model of collaboration, not of confrontation. Fear of the lawlessness of the Sinai spreading within Egypt and Israel’s borders warrants mutual strategic discussions. And with any luck, talks that begin with mutual military needs may just end with a much-needed discussion on both countries’ mutual societal needs.

There are many good reasons not to jump into renewed roundtable bilateral discussions on the peace treaty headfirst. The 1979 treaty was a first, but it was also an only: Sadat and Begin were unique leaders, with unique needs, able to put forth uniquely practical proposals, which were agreed to after unremittingly intense diplomatic efforts facing insurmountable odds. It is unlikely that the stars will realign today as they did thirty-three years ago. But living with a peace treaty that people neither fully accept nor even want starts to seem senseless when events such as those that transpired this month offer the perfect opportunity for a renewed discussion. Only bold leadership in critical moments has ever achieved momentous diplomacy, and I would not like to put it past the always-too-bold Netanyahu to stop talking about Iran for a few minutes and consider taking initiative here in the tradition of his Likud predecessor. I also, justifiably or not, have a little faith in Morsi.