March 26 1979 – The Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty is Signed in Washington, DC

March 26 1979 – The Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty is Signed in Washington, DC
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*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Five-and-half years after the Yom Kippur War, Egypt and Israel agreed to an historic peace treaty in Washington, DC on March 26, 1979. After more than three decades of combat, leaders from the two nations were finally able to bring hostilities to an official end following sixteen months of intense negotiations.

The day after the creation of Israel on May 14, 1948 via a United Nations partition plan, Arab armies invaded the narrow strip of land on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Called a “War of Independence” by the Israelis, the nine-month conflict would be the first in a succession of vicious engagements between the two sides. At the bargaining table the following March, Arabic representatives were forced to acknowledge the expansion of the Jewish State — some 50 percent larger than when combat started.

Over the next quarter-century, a variety of military actions occurred — battles over the Sinai Peninsula in 1956 and 1967, with the latter resulting in a comprehensive Israeli victory in the Six-Day War. Infuriated by further loss of territory to their sworn enemy, Arab leadership agreed to avoid any appearances of settling for the situation as presented. Israel was to be destroyed without a second thought, giving voice to an already-constant state of war between the parties.

In 1973, the animosity came to a head. On October 6th, Syria and Egypt launched an assault on Israel during Yom Kippur, the holiest day in Judaism. Attacking the Israelis from both sides, the Arab militaries rocked their opposition onto its heels — it would be three full days before a counteroffensive could be mounted. When Israel’s defense forces did push back, the Egyptians and Syrians were routed, giving the Israelis control of Sinai and areas familiar to news broadcasts today: the Gaza Strip, West Bank and Golan Heights.

When the Yom Kippur War ended on October 25, 1973, the combatants were pressed to look at the situation from another angle. Diplomats from Israel and Egypt quietly passed messages through intermediaries, opening the possibility for constructive talks in the future. Anwar El Sadat, the President of Egypt, finally grew tired of working through back channels and scheduled meetings for his administration with the Israelis in December 1977.

Nine months later, President of the United States Jimmy Carter offered the two sides isolation from competing interests in the Middle East by opening up Camp David in Maryland for the discussions. During a marathon two-week negotiating session, Sadat and Prime Minister of Israel Menachem Begin hammered out the basics for a treaty. The Camp David Accords, though particularly controversial in the Arab world, provided a solid framework for lasting peace. All that was left to do was finalize details and sign the agreement.

On March 26, 1979, the deal was closed. Sadat, Carter and Begin gathered in the Rose Garden of the White House to announce the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty. Three copies of the official document were made, one in Arabic, a second in Hebrew and the third in English. As Sadat affixed his signature, he cemented his place in history as the first Arab leader to form a peace pact with Israel.

In contrast to other members of the Arab League, Egypt would now recognize Israeli sovereignty in exchange for the return of the Sinai Peninsula. Israel pulled its soldiers and civilians back with the assurance shipping through the Suez Canal would remain open and newly-minted international waters would not be blocked by the Egyptian Navy. Both nations would, in turn, send ambassadors to the other’s capital as part of the process to normalize relations between them. Further, in a concession to Arab concerns, Begin agreed to grant self-rule to Palestinians living in Israeli-controlled areas in the West Bank and Gaza Strip

During the commemorative ceremony, each of the three men spoke about the monumental treaty. Carter called it “the first step on a long and difficult road” to a lasting peace. As the men rose for a unique three-person handshake, hope sprung eternal despite the significant differences that led to drawn-out, contentious negotiations.

Western nations largely applauded the development, with Sadat and Begin receiving the Nobel Peace Prize for 1978, despite the obvious obstacles to a complete end to tensions. Within the region, Arab leaders decried the treaty as a travesty. Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, reacted bitterly: “False peace will not last.” Egypt’s membership in the Arab League was immediately suspended for Sadat’s perceived insult. (Extremists eventually assassinated the Egyptian President in October 1981.)

Despite Arafat’s response, the treaty has remained in effect for more than 30 years — Israeli Minister of Defense Binyamin Ben-Eliezer claimed in a January 2011 interview that “Egypt is not only our closest friend in the region, the co-operation between us goes beyond the strategic.” As Egyptians gathered to oust President Hosni Mubarak around the same time, Israeli officials were quick to agree to the movement of two Egyptian battalions into the Sinai Peninsula to protect the troops from attack. Only the Revolution that followed has threatened the fragile peace announced on that chilly Monday in 1979.

Also On This Day:

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