Egypt and Israel on path toward a warmer peace
Relations between Egypt and Israel have endured many ups and downs since the countries signed a peace agreement in 1979. However, ties between the two have proved to be robust enough and, based on the solid ground of common interests, sufficient to overcome trials and turbulence along the way.
For most of the intervening years, it has been more a matter of peace between governments than peace between peoples, especially as many Egyptians are opposed to a warm relationship with Israel so long as there is no fair and just solution to the Palestinian cause.
In recent years, however, other issues have taken precedence and closer strategic ties between the two countries have developed apace, though these have hardly been matched by economic or civil society engagement.
Last week’s meeting between Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in Sharm El-Sheikh was the first in more than a decade between leaders of the two countries and was significant both for the range of issues fundamental to both sides that were discussed and, equally important, for the warm reception Bennett received from his Egyptian host.
Cairo is becoming more comfortable in moving beyond business-like relations and this was clearly evidenced by a meeting that lasted longer than scheduled, the wide media coverage the visit enjoyed, and the Israeli flags that decorated the occasion for all to see. It might also be the case that last year’s Abraham Accords gave relations between these two neighbors a tailwind.
In recent years, Egypt has faced serious domestic security threats and it sees cooperation with Israel as an important element in rooting out extremist groups such as Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis, which pledged allegiance to Daesh in 2014. This extremist movement seeks both the establishment of an Islamist entity in the Sinai Peninsula and the destruction of Israel, and has proved itself capable of carrying out many deadly operations, frequently targeting Egyptian military convoys with improvised explosive devices and assaulting police checkpoints. It has killed hundreds of soldiers, police officers and civilians.
Collaboration in containing this and similar movements that operate in the Sinai has become an important pillar of Egyptian-Israeli relations. It has even led Israel to abandon a taboo, enshrined in the 1979 peace agreement, on its assent to a growing Egyptian military presence in Sinai — a presence that now far exceeds the limitations agreed in that treaty. Additionally, it was Egypt, according to more than one source, that turned to Israel for assistance with its air force, including the use of drones, helicopters and jets, in targeting the Islamist insurgents.
Equally, Israel requires Egypt’s assistance in its dealings with Hamas. Since Hamas came to power in Gaza, Cairo has brokered ceasefires on each of the occasions that deadly hostilities broke out along the Israel-Gaza border. For Israel, Hamas in Gaza poses a critical and continuous, though not existential, challenge in a conflict in which Egypt is the most willing and capable broker of any long-term solution.
Hamas, in the eyes of Israeli strategists, is not a threat in the same league as Iran or even Hezbollah, but it is a constant one that also improves its capabilities in each round of confrontations.
Moreover, the harsh blockade of Gaza continues to stoke hatred against Israel, attract criticism from the international community and jeopardize hopes of improved relations with other Arab countries. Under these circumstances, another clash between Israel and Hamas is always just around the corner — a fact that influences the domestic conversation in Egypt and provides ammunition to those who oppose closer relations with Israel. But the new Israeli government appears more receptive to an agreement on Gaza that would improve living conditions there in exchange for calm along the border, especially an agreement brokered by Egypt, which would avoid the need for direct contact with Hamas.
Egypt is keen to play the mediator in Gaza and, possibly, in any wider-ranging negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, because this would ease pressures at home, reduce the risk of another flare-up between Hamas and Israel that might fuel extremism in the region and, equally importantly, improve Cairo’s image in Washington. For the latter, El-Sisi is looking for Bennett’s support.
Cairo is becoming more comfortable in moving beyond business-like relations and this was clearly evidenced by a meeting that lasted longer than scheduled.
To this end, the Israeli government could prove to be useful; hence Egypt’s improved relations with Israel and its cooperation in preventing Israeli-Palestinian relations from deteriorating could go down well with the Biden administration.
Another issue that has barely begun to be addressed is the potential for increased economic and trade relations between Egypt and Israel. After 40 years of peace, the volume of trade between the two countries is less than a fifth of Israel’s trade with the UAE only a year after the normalization accords were signed.
Egypt has not been averse to close and beneficial economic relations with Israel, but Cairo is wary of public reaction to such developments, which so far has resulted in only limited tourism opportunities, not to mention insufficient scientific, cultural and civil society collaboration.
For Israel, the public side is what it is longing for, as this would mean validation, recognition and acceptance of the country. The summit in Sharm El-Sheikh could be a first step toward transforming the cold peace between Egypt and Israel into a warmer one, but it will require both sides to remain cognizant of each other’s domestic and international needs and sensitivities, and to be prepared to make concessions in accordance with these.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg