The stigma of Camp David

By Christopher Harper

The Camp David Accords—once heralded by the United States, Israel, and Egypt as a solution to the Middle East crisis—continue to stymie any significant efforts to address the problems in the region.

More than 40 years ago, I arrived in the Middle East just after the peace agreement was signed. At the time, Americans saw the agreement as a major step forward. Instead, the accords resulted in the isolation of Egypt—once the leader of the Arab world.

Until now, Egypt has been relegated to a secondary role in the region. Moreover, the agreement led directly to the assassination of Anwar Sadat, the rise of Saddam Hussein, and myriad troubles in the Middle East from Syria to Libya and even Iran.

For Egypt and Israel, the agreement has resulted in what many call a “cold peace” during which the two countries don’t face the possibility of war but with little interaction beyond cursory talks about security and economic issues.

For example, my wife and I have been traveling throughout Egypt over the past two weeks. We wanted to stop in Israel for a short visit. But we found it virtually impossible to find a way to travel directly between the two countries.

The huge volume of U.S. aid has had almost no impact on improving the lot of the average Egyptian, most of whom see little benefit from the Camp David agreement.

Cultural exchanges—once seen as a way to improve relations between Egyptians and Israelis–have faltered badly. For example, Farouk Hosnoy, the former minister for culture for more than two decades, refused to visit Israel and threatened to burn any Israeli book he found in the Alexandria library. Every year, organizers of Cairo Film Festival refuse to allow Israel to participate in the event. When the Israeli Center for Research and Information translated Alaa al-Aswany’s popular novel, The Yacoubian Building, he threatened to sue the center because he opposed to cultural normalization with Israel.

At one point, Egypt’s Supreme Administrative Court upheld a ruling that ordered the revocation of citizenship from 30,000 Egyptian men married to Israeli women.

The long-term tension between Israel and Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip that borders Egypt, has created problems for the Cairo government. The Egyptians, who brokered a ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas, has grown increasingly tired of the actions of both sides.

Despite the long list of diplomatic ills, however, a recent gas deal between Egypt and Israel provides some hope for the future.

Partners in Israel’s Leviathan and Tamar offshore gas fields agreed last year to sell $15 billion worth of gas to a customer in Egypt in what Israeli officials called the most significant deal to emerge since the neighbors made peace in 1979.

With this significant step in economic ties, perhaps the “cold peace” will at least result in some future cooperation between the two sides. But the Camp David accords—once hailed as the pathway to peace in the region—will remain a sore point for Egypt, Israel, and the rest of the Middle East.