Egypt and Israel: An odd couple at risk?

February 3, 2011

Anwar el-Sadat, Jimmy Carter, and Menachem Begin at the signing of the Camp David Peace Treaty in 1979.

When I list the countries I have visited, I don’t include Egypt. In a certain sense, though, I have been to what is now Egypt, and under unique circumstances. My visit, which was unplanned, occurred while I was on a tour of Israel with a group of American journalists. The trip was planned well in advance, so it was a coincidence that I was in Tel Aviv on March 26, 1979, the day the Camp David peace treaty was concluded between Israel and Egypt.


The itinerary for our trip included a stop at Yamit, a town the Israelis had built in the Sinai Peninsula, which had been seized from Egypt during the Six-Day War in 1967. One of the provisions of the treaty was that Israel would return the Sinai to Egypt, and Egypt would leave it demilitarized. Another result of that treaty – seemly lost in the clamor surrounding the popular uprising in Egypt – was U.S. political and military support for Egypt. On the day we were supposed to go to Yamit, our guides told us the trip was cancelled because the residents of the town – who objected to the treaty, and especially to the withdrawal of settlers from the Sinai – had blockaded the highway. We were surprised that we had to explain this, but we told the guides that if the settlers were blockading the highway, that was where we wanted to be.


So the bus took us as far as we could go, and we got out and talked to the angry settlers, who had piled furniture and tires and other obstructions across the highway. We talked to the settlers about their determination to stay in Yamit; when we returned to the bus, the driver told us he knew how to get to the town without using that highway. That turned out to be true, although the bus got stuck in the desert sand at one point, and we all had to get out and push. Yamit was virtually deserted, and it was an odd experience to walk through that town with virtually no human life in sight. We did encounter one elderly, gregarious man who identified himself as the “unofficial mayor” and explained the layout of the town and his own disappointment about Israel’s decision. Yamit was still in Israeli hands on that day. It was evacuated in April 1982, and some of the settlers had to be routed from their homes and carried away by the Israeli Defense Forces. The town, which was a beautiful little settlement of about 2,500 people, was demolished before the peninsula was ceded to Egypt.


The Camp David Treaty was brokered by President Jimmy Carter and signed by Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Sadat and Begin both were excoriated in some quarters, and the treaty certainly was a factor in the murder of Sadat in 1981. Egypt was also suspended from the Arab League for a while.

 Whatever else one may think of the treaty, it has prevented hostilities between Israel and Egypt for more than 30 years, during most of which Hosni Mubarek has been president of Egypt. The future of that treaty – and the likelihood of renewed belligerence between the two countries – is one of the many things at stake in the uprising against Mubarek’s regime.

Anwar el-Sadat with Ronald Reagan in 1981

When the treaty was signed in Washington, D.C., the ritual was televised live on an oversized screen in a public square in Tel Aviv. There were lights and music and dancing, but the joy seemed largely orchestrated. When my colleagues and I wandered just a few blocks from that square, the city was quiet. A couple of us stopped in a bar operated by a Yemeni woman named Chanita Madmoni. We sat next to two old Israelis – one Greek, the other Rumanian. We told them they didn’t seem excited about the “shalom.” They’d rather have peace than war, they said, but they weren’t convinced it would last. Judging by their ages, I’d venture that it lasted longer than they did.


3 Responses to “Egypt and Israel: An odd couple at risk?”

  1. shoreacres Says:

    A useful and interesting post. I wasn’t aware of the history of Yamit, and I’m amazed at the amount of information available, including aerial photos of the destruction and interviews with residents.

    I started following Al Jazeera’s English coverage of events in Egypt a week ago, and am curious about your opinion of their broadcasts. Certainly they have their own point of view and are tailoring their broadcasts to their audience. Still, my sense of things is that I’m getting more hard news from them than from US networks. I suppose that might only be an indication they’re doing their job.

    • charlespaolino Says:

      It’s hard to understand what motivates American news coverage any more. The distinction between news and entertainment has been blurred to the point that the border is no longer visible. This has been another case in which the media spent a lot of time covering itself rather than concentrating on the story. Another factor may be that Al Jazeera had less trouble getting access to the protesters than American media did. I’ve been following it on NPR and the coverage has been pretty immediate and balanced. The situation there isn’t a simple as many Americans would like it to be, and the nuances that affect American policy toward Egypt were made clear in the NPR coverage.

  2. […] Egypt and Israel: An odd cou­ple at risk? ( […]

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