One year after Israel's final withdrawal from the Egyptian Sinai, relations between the two pivotal Middle East states remain extremely cool at best. Each side accuses the other of a long list of violations of the spirit or letter of their history-making peace treaty four years ago.
Moreover, no real progress has been made in laying the foundations for a normalization of their relations. There is little commerce or tourism, no cultural exchanges and an increasingly hostile Egyptian media. Egypt's ambassador to Tel Aviv, withdrawn in September after the massacre of Palestinian refugees in Beirut, has not returned to his post.
"The enthusiasm among Egyptians has vanished," said an Egyptian travel agency manager who has ceased organizing tours for Egyptians to Israel because demand has dried up. "It's the whole atmosphere of what has happened in the area that has made people lose interest."
Some Egyptian and Israeli commentators have taken to calling the relationship "a frozen peace" because it so obviously lacks warmth and most issues remain unresolved. What seems certain is that the two have struck up a "quarrelsome peace," one western diplomat said, with both sides submitting a long list of grievances to the U.S. government and Congress for judgment.
Yet, despite all the name-calling and bickering, both Egypt and Israel appear to agree that the most essential ingredient of their March 1979 treaty, namely peace, remains intact despite jolts to it by Israel's annexation of East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, its attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor near Baghdad and its invasion of Lebanon.
"Despite all, the basis remains solid. You're not going to find many in either country who want to go back on the treaty," said the western diplomat.
Ephraim Doubek, Israel's envoy here, compares the Egyptian-Israeli relationship to the proverbial "half-empty glass." Looking at the bottom half, he notes that despite the crises of the past year, the two countries still maintain diplomatic relations, open borders and "peace as a strategic asset."
"We believe the Egyptian government wants genuine peace because it serves Egypt's interests," he said in an interview in the 18th-floor Israeli Embassy in Giza overlooking the Nile River. "We are convinced of that."
Some western analysts hold that the underlying problem is rooted in what one called an "asymmetry in expectations" about what could be extracted from the peace treaty, with Israel hoping for much more in terms of trade, tourism and cultural exchanges.
The analyst recalled that the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat had warned then-president Jimmy Carter in early 1977--when they first discussed peace between Egypt and Israel, well before the September 1978 Camp David agreement that led to the peace treaty in March 1979--that Egyptians would not be ready for "full peace" for at least a generation.
The lack of real progress toward what the two sides call "normalization" of relations stems from several causes, and which side is most to blame depends largely on which version of events and alleged treaty violations one gives more credence.
A count is kept by the U.S.-sponsored 2,650-man multinational force set up to report on violations, but its findings are not made public. One western diplomat who has seen most of its reports said that there had been no serious violations recorded by either side but that Israel had made more minor violations, primarily flights across the border by its aircraft.
The Egyptians say the root cause is Israel's "spirit of belligerency" toward its Arab neighbors, as one high-ranking official termed it, particularly as displayed in its invasion of Lebanon and its role in the massacre of Palestinians in the refugee camps near Beirut in September.
"It would be Utopian to consider that we would continue our policies as if nothing is happening around us," said the senior Egyptian official, who asked to remain anonymous because of his delicate position in Egyptian-Israeli negotiations.
"Certainly you cannot speak of cultural relations when there is killing going on and violations of the territory of a country and massacres, the use of loose force. You just cannot speak of exchanging music bands."
The Israeli Embassy here blames the souring of relations on what Doubek calls "a political Egyptian option" to preoccupy itself now with the restoration of its ties with other Arab states, most of which severed ties with Egypt in 1979 to protest its peace treaty with Israel.
"Our assessment is that with or without Lebanon we would have found ourselves in the same position," he said. "Lebanon accelerated some problems, but generally we would have been at the same point due to the Palestinian issue."
Israeli diplomats here insist the cooling of relations already had begun in May, a month before Israel's invasion of Lebanon, with almost complete halts in Egyptian tourism to Israel and in commerce other than the uninterrupted sale of Egyptian oil to the Israelis.
Actually, it had begun earlier, due in part to Israeli policy in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and was only made worse by the intense wrangling over demarcation of their border in the Sinai, which threatened to hold up the final Israeli withdrawal there last April 25. Only last-minute mediation by the United States saved the day by forging an agreement that essentially left the border issue up in the air--a festering wound in the whole Israeli-Egyptian relationship.
Few had ever heard of Taba, the disputed half-mile-long wedge of borderland on the Gulf of Aqaba where the Israelis have just opened a new hotel run by the American Sonesta chain. But in Egypt it has become the symbol of Israeli perfidy, because Egyptians insist the U.S.-brokered agreement specifically banned the hotel's opening.
Egypt is demanding that Taba be submitted to outside arbitration and settled before any overall improvement in relations is possible. Israel refuses to discuss Taba separately and insists that the whole range of topics involved in normalization be taken up collectively.
The other main disputes include: Press and Culture
Israel has repeatedly complained about what it calls an increasingly hostile presentation of its policies to Egyptian readers, including more recently the use of the term "the enemy" as a reference to Israel.
"We are very concerned about the press because it's gone back to a Nasserist opinion of Israel and is not educating for peace," Doubek said, referring to the late Egyptian leader Gamal Abdul Nasser. "People are being indoctrinated with hatred."
Egyptian officials say they cannot stop their newspapers, even if "state-guided," from reflecting the general Egyptian bitterness about Israel and its "aggressive" policies toward its Arab neighbors.
Actually, the Egyptian government has actively intervened from time to time to soften the angry tone of the press. It even barred Egyptian reporters from going to Lebanon last summer to cover the Israeli invasion for fear that such direct coverage would fan public emotions against Israel.
What impact the Egyptian press makes on the public here is unclear. The Israeli Embassy says it has received no report in four years of any Israeli visitor being harassed by Egyptians. Doubek commented that Israeli tourists were "very well received" and "made to feel welcome."
The only cultural cooperation, according to the Israeli Embassy, has been a joint television production aired last April 25 and an Egyptian agreement to allow the opening in Cairo of an Israeli academic research center. Tourism
After a surge in interest among Egyptians, particularly the 6 million Christian Copts, in visiting the Holy Land a year ago, the flow of Egyptian tourists has virtually stopped. Only 4,000 visited Israel last year compared to 29,000 Israelis who came here, the Foreign Ministry said.
Elhammy Zayat, who runs Emeco, one of three authorized Egyptian tourist agencies dealing with Israel, cited the Israeli invasion of Lebanon as the turning point in Egypt's attitude. But he also noted the decision by the Coptic Church to forbid Egyptian Copts from going to Israel until its feud with the Ethiopian Coptic Church over control of a section of Old Jerusalem was resolved. The church accuses the Israeli government of failing to enforce a court ruling in its favor.
The Israeli Embassy charges that since last May the Egyptian office issuing special exit visas required for Egyptians going to Israel has put too much red tape in their way. Commerce
Egypt continues to sell Israel about 40,000 barrels of oil a day at world market prices. Last year, Israel bought about $500 million worth of Egyptian crude and this year it is expected to buy about $400 million worth.
Apart from oil, trade between the two is negligible and is decreasing. Since April 1982, the volume of two-way, non-oil trade has amounted to only $16 million, according to the Egyptian Foreign Ministry.
Egypt says $15 million of that is Egyptian purchases of Israeli goods, and it is clearly upset by the imbalance.
Egyptians justify the small trade volume as the result of companies refusing to buy Israeli goods because of their fear of being blacklisted in the Arab world. But they also say it is the result of "the Egyptian mood of not looking with warmth" on Israeli products as "an expression of resentment" against Israeli policies, as the high-ranking government official put it.
The Israeli Embassy counters that there has been "a complete freeze" by the Egyptian government on issuing import licenses for Israeli goods, and it blames this measure for most of the drop in trade.
On the positive side, U.S. and Israeli officials here note there has been a slight thawing--due largely to American prodding--in the Egyptian-Israeli freeze of relations since early March. They cite as evidence a new round of talks on the Taba issue, Israel's participation in the Cairo trade fair and some Egyptian give on issuing new licenses for the import of Israeli goods.
But the Egyptians seem as disgruntled as ever with the Israeli attitude on Taba.
"We are back to square one," said the senior Egyptian official, commenting on the early March meeting of Israeli and Egyptian negotiators in Ismailia. "No," he added upon reflection, "we are back to before square one."
Egypt repeatedly has sought U.S. intervention to help resolve the Taba dispute. But as one U.S. official here said, with all that Washington has on its hands in the Middle East diplomatic logjam over Lebanon and the larger peace talks, it is unlikely to battle with Israel over Taba.
Thus it appears likely there will be a continuation of the basic freeze in Egyptian-Israeli relations--at least until some progress is made by the United States in getting an Israeli agreement to withdraw from Lebanon. That step, western diplomats say, might lead to the return of Egypt's ambassador to Tel Aviv and some hope for a real thaw in the chilly relations between the two unhappy peace partners.