The Camp David Accords signed between Egypt and Israel in 1978 have endured despite a long period of extreme volatility in the region.  In 1993, the Oslo Mutual Recognition Pact between Israel and the PLO took a further step toward overall peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Over the past three decades, the United States Government has assumed the role of guarantor and active promoter of these agreements visualized as the foundations of peace. In order to assure the smoothness of the process, it designed and managed a multi-faceted program intended to build trust and friendship between peoples on opposite sides of the conflict.  The contention of this article is that the fundamental design of certain aspects of that program were flawed and their effects contrary to the goal of bringing the two sides closer together.  In fact, we argue that U.S. efforts to bolster peace through programs of economic development called “regional cooperation” actually promoted many of the inequalities and hostilities they were trying to mitigate.

The Price of Peace

Camp DavidWhen Israel and Egypt signed the Camp David Peace Accords on March 26, 1979, it was expected that this landmark treaty would lead to an unprecedented “normalization” of relations, the fruits of which would include cultural exchange, trade, exchange of ambassadors, and transfer of technology. A brief overview of the architecture of U.S. assistance shows that the American peace assurance plan came in three parts.  First, using some perverse logic, it provided billions of dollars of military assistance to both Israel and Egypt, which, by 2007, amounted to more than 102 billion dollars.[1] Second, two hours after the signing of the peace treaty on March 26, 1979, the United States signed a separate “memorandum of agreement” with Israel that included a pledge that it “will take such remedial measures as it deems appropriate, which may include diplomatic, economic and military measures” in Israel’s defense.[2] And finally, it promised non-military assistance to Israel that by 2007 amounted to more than fifty-three billion dollars, while it committed to Egypt delivery of the largest economic development package in history.  By 2007, U.S. non-military aid to Egypt totaled close to forty billion dollars.[3] Each year since 1979, Israel has deposited a check into its national treasury, using a portion to purchase U.S. Treasury notes.[4] For the Egyptians, much of their economic development package was used to purchase Western science and technology in the form of American training, technical assistance and American-made goods and services.[5]

A very small part of this massive aid, hardly noticeable among all of the hundreds of American projects being launched by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in Egypt, was a tiny program funded annually at a level of five to seven million dollars.  Its purpose was to encourage cooperation between high-level Israeli scientists working at scores of well-funded Israeli research institutions, on the one hand, and a handful of top Egyptian research scientists struggling  with very limited resources on the other.  This program, known as MERC (Middle East Regional Cooperation), is the subject of our inquiry.

The assumption made by the technocrats who crafted the peace package was that the Israelis possessed a technological and scientific research capacity that their Arab neighbors were lacking.  It was believed that the sharing of this knowledge would be an important contribution to the “normalization” process.  Moreover, the cooperation at the scientific level would be accompanied by friendly exchanges that would open closed borders and allow Israelis and Egyptians to travel back and forth with ease. In retrospect, we see major flaws in this modest, good-faith, rapport-building initiative that led to unanticipated and disappointing consequences. The American effort to expose a small cadre of Arab academic elites to better-endowed Israeli scientific institutions was fated to achieve little in the way of trust and cooperation. Instead it accentuated a perception of technological inequality, threatened to alienate Arab academics from their own societies, and increased regional anxieties regarding Western cultural and economic hegemony.

A Windfall of Benefits

Although the end of active hostilities was welcomed on all sides, there was recognition from the beginning that the dividends of peace would be different for each of the signatories. For the United States, who signed the treaty as witness and guarantor, it was the fulfillment of a Cold War strategy aimed at moving Egypt into the Western camp and reducing the influence of the Soviet Union in the region. For Israel, it removed a potential adversary from the Arab-Israel conflict. And for Egypt, it not only alleviated fear of more wasted lives, but it also opened the door to the promise of greater economic progress.[6] This was an era when a devout belief in technology as the gateway to development predominated; in the eyes of Egyptian academics and politicians, the United States and Israel were the keepers of  the keys.

In exchange for a complete cessation of hostilities and for Israel’s return of the Sinai Peninsula, the United States began its annual contribution by providing a total of $7.3 billion to be shared by Israel and Egypt at a ratio of 3 to 2, respectively.  This included a mix of military and economic assistance.  To date, this ratio continues with only minor changes.[7] USAID – the preferred vehicle of American diplomacy for ‘winning hearts and minds’ for peace and democracy in Central America and Vietnam – was automatically chosen to oversee the delivery of the peace dividend.   From 1979 onward, USAID assumed responsibility for making an annual electronic transfer of $800 million of non-military aid into the Israeli treasury.  And, for Egypt, it oversaw the delivery of technical assistance and economic development projects at a cost of over $1 billion a year.  (Military assistance was overseen separately by the US Department of Defense).

From its foundation in 1945, the Arab League established over twenty specialized agencies addressing development issues. At a meeting in Baghdad in November 1978, leaders of twenty Arab states and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) agreed that if Egypt signed the Accords, its membership in the Arab League would be suspended.[8] Once the treaty was signed, Arab nations broke off diplomatic relations with Egypt, terminating all economic aid to Cairo.[9] Although there was communication and consultation among Arab science, technology, and development personnel under Arab League auspices before 1978, there were few regional development projects. Sadat decided that the benefits to Egypt of remaining in the Arab League were less than what he could gain from United States’ foreign assistance. Consequently, USAID moved into Cairo, with over one thousand employees and consultants to bring development assistance to Egypt. [10]

A Vision of Progress through Science

Already in November 1978, a hastily-designed study by the USAID Office of Science and Technology was launched in anticipation of a comprehensive peace.[11] At the time, all R&D activity for USAID fell under the purview of the Office of Science and Technology.  Two members of the Graduate Program in Science, Technology and Public Policy at George Washington University were commissioned to interview academics and government officials in Egypt, Israel and Jordan in order to recommend ways of promoting the participation of frontline states  (Israel, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon as well as the PLO) in  cooperative ventures. Not surprisingly, given its provenance, the focus of the study was upon projects that would advance scientific and technological solutions to development problems in the region.