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A Land-for-Peace Deal Is Still the Basis for Arab-Israeli Peace Agreements

The Situation in Egypt Doesn’t Change What Works in Peacemaking

SOURCE: AP/Amr Nabil

Egyptian anti-Mubarak protesters chant as they wave Egyptian flags during their protest in Cairo, Egypt. The Egyptian revolution is reigniting arguments against land-for-peace being the basis for Arab-Israeli peace agreements.

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Egypt’s revolution has understandably spurred debate about Israel’s security in the region and the direction of Middle East peace efforts. Predictably, many have used the Egyptian government, including the Muslim Brotherhood’s potential role, to justify their skepticism toward Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking efforts. The revolution also is reigniting arguments against land-for-peace being the basis for Arab-Israeli peace agreements. This is evident in former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s recent comments during a trip to Israel. He said that in return for giving up land, Israelis have gotten “rockets in their bedrooms, synagogues and businesses. I’m not sure why you would keep giving more land away. What do you want? More rockets, more encroachment, more violence?”

This reasoning follows that even though Egypt and Israel signed a peace agreement, there is a strong possibility that a new democratic Egyptian government could break that treaty. As a result, Israel should no longer sign land-for-peace agreements because they are not sustainable in the long run. In reality, however, the case of Egypt demonstrates the importance of implementing land-for-peace deals based on coordinated and comprehensive arrangements—not unilateral steps.

The 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, which was a land-for-peace deal, is important because it has served as the primary foundation for Israel’s strategic defenses in the Middle East for more than 30 years. It has also helped prevent the outbreak of another regional Arab-Israeli war. A similar land-for-peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians would further solidify regional security.

Fears that the Egyptian-Israeli treaty will unravel with a democratic Egyptian government are groundless for two reasons. First, the revolution in Egypt is driven by Egypt’s secular youth population that is demanding internal political and economic changes. Undercurrents of anti-U.S. and anti-Israeli sentiment exist but these feelings are not the driving force behind the protests. Ultimately, the next government in Egypt will be responsible for delivering the domestic changes the Egyptian people seek. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already welcomed the Egyptian military’s statements that it will uphold the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement.

Second, fears that the Muslim Brotherhood—an organization that supports Hamas’s fight against Israel—will assume control of the government after democratic elections are held are overblown. The Muslim Brotherhood has stated that it does not seek control of the government and will not put forward a candidate for president. And it is likely that new opposition groups will be very competitive and reduce the brotherhood’s influence after the brotherhood’s pseudo-monopoly on opposition is eliminated with the opening up of the political process.

Those who argue against Israel giving up land in exchange for peace further point to Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000 and Gaza in 2005 as examples. In each instance, extremist organizations—Hezbollah and Hamas—eventually filled the vacuum created by Israel’s departure.

This analysis appears plausible at first glance. But it overlooks the fact that the disengagements lacked a coordinated and comprehensive peace agreement, and Israel did not withdraw from all the land that the other parties desired—the Shebaa Farms in the case of Lebanon and the West Bank in the case of the Palestinians. This allowed Hezbollah and Hamas to maintain their criticisms of Israel while gaining more support from the population.

Israelis, Palestinians, and the United States can ensure an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement produces long-term stability and security by increasing their support for Palestinian state-building efforts. This comprehensive support will increase Palestinians’ buy-in to the land-for-peace arrangement because they will have new jobs, opportunities, and control over their daily lives.

In the end, the only true guarantor of Middle East peace and stability is an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement that precipitates Israeli peace treaties with other regional states—in line with the framework of the Arab Peace Initiative. The basis for the Israeli-Palestinian agreement continues to be the land-for-peace concept that has shown its critical value if it is implemented in a coordinated and comprehensive approach.

Ian Bomberg is a Research Assistant for Middle East Progress at American Progress.

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