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Analysis: Behind the Recent Egyptian-Israeli Rapprochement

[Cairo] Since Egypt brokered a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel last May and Naftali Bennett became prime minister in June, Egyptian-Israeli relations have renewed vigor. This has brought Cairo much sought-after US praise and re-established Egypt’s role in the region.

On a recent visit to Cairo, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, reiterated the US administration’s appreciation for the Egyptian efforts toward calming the Gaza Strip and containing recent escalations, the spokesman of the Egyptian Presidency said.

President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi affirmed Egypt’s support for various efforts aimed at revitalizing the Israel-Palestinian peace process and the resumption of negotiations, the spokesman continued. El-Sisi confirmed Egypt’s firm position that a just and comprehensive solution guarantees the rights of the Palestinian people and the establishment of its independent state in accordance with international references, which would open up prospects for peaceful coexistence among all the peoples of the region.

It began with a visit by Chief of General Intelligence Abbas Kamel to Jerusalem on August 18. He met with Bennett for high-level talks on Gaza. During the meeting, Kamel extended an invitation from el-Sisi to the prime minister to visit Egypt, for the first such visit since 2011. A few hours later, Israel lowered the level of its travel warning regarding South Sinai.

On September 13, el-Sisi and Bennett met in Sharm el-Sheikh.

Bennett said their talks “created a foundation for deep ties in the future,” adding that “Israel is increasingly opening up to the countries of the region, and the basis of this long-standing recognition is the peace between Israel and Egypt. Therefore, on both sides, we must invest in strengthening this link, and we have done so today.”

During the meeting, el-Sisi said, “We spoke very frankly and very courageously, as the prime minister said, and we will continue to talk more for our two countries and for the region. I told His Excellency that Egypt would always strive for peace, stability, construction, development and reconstruction, far from anything that leads to the contrary.”

Hisham Kassem, a former member of the Cairo Peace Association and a former publisher of the Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm, told The Media Line, “This move was supposed to happen 30 years ago. But it ended up being behind the UAE. Egypt was the leader in everything related to Arab-Israeli relations, and in order for Egypt not to relinquish its regional role, it began operating flights between Cairo and Tel Aviv and will likely take further action in order to further enhance relations.”

A few hours after the Sisi-Bennett talks, EgyptAir listed four nonstop commercial flights per week between Cairo International Airport and Ben-Gurion Airport. On October 3, the first-ever commercial Egypt-Air flight landed in Tel Aviv. The inaugural flight builds on terms first laid out over 40 years ago in the 1979 Egypt-Israeli peace treaty.

Most Egyptians wanting to visit Israel have faced insurmountable obstacles. Coptic Christians only began visiting Jerusalem again after Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria visited the Egyptian Coptic Church in Jerusalem in 2015 to preside over the funeral prayers for Archbishop Anba Abraham of Jerusalem. He was the first Coptic pope to visit Israel in decades, opening the door for other pilgrims.

Said Sadek, a professor of political sociology, told The Media Line, “Pope Tawadros, who enjoys a close relationship with President el-Sisi, visited Jerusalem and sent delegations.” He noted, “Many Copts want to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem.”

Until now, pilgrims who chose to visit Jerusalem flew on Air Sinai, which only flew between Egypt and Israel. For political reasons, the airline operated stealthily with no website, publicly listed schedule, or markings on planes ever since its establishment in 1982. In 2002, EgyptAir began operating Air Sinai, continuing to use planes without any markings. Flights were not listed in EgyptAir schedules and did not appear on its website or route maps. In February 2020, a third-party travel agency began handling online booking via an independent website.

In February 2017, Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court ruled that Christians have the right to a one-month paid leave to go on the pilgrimage.

Walid Darwish, a professor of political economics based in Brussels, told The Media Line, “The Egyptian Supreme Court asserted the constitutional right of Christian state employees to be granted paid vacation to go on a religious pilgrimage, the same right that is given Muslim employees to go on pilgrimage to Mecca. It is expected that tens of thousands of Coptic Christians will benefit from this ruling. It is inconceivable that EgyptAir would miss out on this business opportunity, especially after the devastating losses caused by COVID-19.”

El-Sisi is going beyond just improving bilateral relations. In his remarks at the Armed Forces Educational Symposium in commemoration of the October 6 victory (the Yom Kippur War), el-Sisi praised President Anwar Sadat’s vision for peace and his ability to overcome obstacles to achieve it.

Sadat, el-Sisi noted, “initiated a peace initiative that was proven by reality after 40 years. The current reality confirms President Sadat’s vision. He was ahead of his time.”

El-Sisi expressed hopes that, just as Sadat overcame obstacles, leaders in the region will do the same and transcend barriers to deepen relations.

Darwish commented, “My father, who was a senior air force general and fought in three wars against Israel, was unequivocally pro-peace talks after the late President Sadat’s peace initiative. He said that no one understands the value of peace and the unimaginable price that would be paid by future generations should we choose to pursue that path of war on the basis of ideology like those who fought wars. He was among a considerable majority among his peers at the time.”

Kassem said, “We have a new prime minister in Israel who is trying to deviate from the Abrahamic path that [his predecessor Binyamin] Netanyahu followed. In order for Naftali Bennett to make his mark on foreign policy, he is opening channels with el-Sisi and advancing the normalization of Egyptian-Israeli relations.

“Bennett comes after the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history. Netanyahu served in this position longer than [David] Ben-Gurion, and therefore Bennett needs to forge his own legacy.”

Darwish said, “A historic opportunity was wasted in the late ’70s and early ’80s for an almost-final settlement of the conflict. The situation has become more complicated and is at a deadlock at present. The next opportunity may present itself with new generations on both sides as the current generation of leaders, and probably following one, are completely consumed by the horrors of the past and the present. They are ideologically locked into a cycle where certain parties and groups, on both sides, have an existential reason to keep the conflict alive.”

Sadek noted, “There are several schools in the Arab-Israeli conflict. The school of Arab nationalism frames the conflict between Zionism and Arab nationalism. The school of political Islam sees the conflict as between Islam and Judaism.

“And then there’s the school of realism, represented by several personalities such as Ismail Sidky, the former Egyptian prime minister; Anwar Sadat; and [the late Tunisian President] Habib Bourguiba. Their views were not based on military solutions to conflicts. Their vision for shortening the conflict of the warring countries with Israel was not accepted by all Arabs,” he continued.

“When you say that it is an Arab-Israeli conflict, then each of the 22 Arab countries has to bear its share in the cost of the conflict. And when you say that it is an Islamic-Jewish conflict, then each of the 57 Islamic countries has to bear its share of the conflict. But the truth is that each country is looking out for its own interests,” Sadek said.

On October 13, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken held a joint press conference in Washington with Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

“We believe that normalization can and should be a force for progress, not only between Israel and Arab countries and other countries in the region and beyond but also between Israelis and Palestinians,“ Blinken said.

On October 4, Egypt hosted a Hamas delegation headed by Ismail Haniyeh. The Hamas leader discussed four issues in the meeting, according to Arab newspapers: confirmation of the cease-fire, mediation of a prisoner exchange between Israel and Hamas, the Gaza Strip reconstruction project, and Palestinian national reconciliation.

Kassem noted that “Hamas has become an international pariah; even Jordan refuses to open any contact with it. This was an opportunity for the Egyptian regime to gain the attention of the new US administration and avoid more pressure through engaging in the reconstruction of Gaza.

“When Hamas, linked to Iran, obstructed the armistice agreement, the Egyptian regime closed the Rafah crossing [between Sinai and the Gaza Strip] indefinitely,” the Egyptian intellectual continued.

“The visit of the Hamas leaders to Cairo is a tactical maneuver aimed at achieving more gains for Hamas and Cairo without changing the reality on the ground in the course of the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations,” Kassem said.

Sadek said, “President el-Sisi is a continuation of Sadat’s school of realism and a continuation of the general regional trend of normalization with Israel.”

Darwish said, “It is important to note that in view of the current trend in the Middle East, Egypt will not allow its relationship with Israel to stagnate and become fossilized. Especially after the departure of ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu, who represented a thorn in this relationship, Egypt and Israel are developing relationships that necessitate economic, political and security cooperation to address regional crises and establish long-lasting peace.

“Naftali Bennett’s visit to Egypt and Mr. Sisi’s subsequent remarks calling upon other Arab countries to follow the model of President Sadat are realistic and productive,” he continued.

“History shows us that after centuries of conflict, France and Germany managed to establish the European Coal and Steel Community only four years after the end of WWII and millions of casualties. This later became the European Union, in less than 50 years,” Darwish said.