Mutual Interests Guarantee Israel-Egypt Relationship, Despite Many Bumps in the Road
Shared security concerns and growing economic ties have yet to lead to a ‘warm peace’ between the two peoples
When Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty in March 1979, there was hope for warm relations between two countries that shared a bloody past. Disappointment quickly replaced the dream. While war was no longer an option, there was no love lost between Israelis and Egyptians.
Shared interests continue to provide the glue for the historic agreement and the relationship is important enough to both sides for them to maintain it. Yet, more than 40 years later, it seems unlikely a friendship that crosses realpolitik will be forged.
“The relationship is unprecedented between non-warring countries in the world,” Dr. Udi Balanga, an expert on Egypt from Bar-Ilan University’s Department of Middle Eastern Studies, told The Media Line. “It is not one between adversaries.”
In the decades since President Anwar Sadat flew to Jerusalem and spoke to the Knesset about the importance of peace in the Middle East, the optimism has long since subsided. Still, the Egyptian-Israeli relationship is an important cornerstone of both countries’ foreign policy, one that neither is quick to relinquish despite the many challenges they have faced over the years.
In 1982, when then-Egyptian Foreign Minister Boutros Boutros-Ghali defined the peace with Israel as “cold,” he probably did not think the characterization would stick. He, like many others, may have thought the agreement would not stick either.
“This is a peace between regimes, not between people, and is based largely on mutual security interests,” Balanga said. “These have remained constant throughout the years, but so has the attitude toward the peace being cold.”
Fast-forward to 2021 and while the term “cold peace” is often used with regret, it has proven to be one of the more stable relationships in the volatile neighborhood that is the Middle East.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett recently received an invitation to visit Cairo and meet with President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi in the coming weeks. It will be the first public visit by an Israeli leader in a decade and it is a signal of the strength of the relationship, despite it being constantly put to the test.
“There is a huge gap between the security and defense relations, which are excellent, and the civilian relations,” said Balanga. “At the level of the peoples, the relations are very poor.”
For Egypt, Israel provides a gateway to the White House. For Israel, a stable border with Egypt lets it focus on the threats it has on other borders. Also, a strong Arab ally is a critical part of its foreign and defense policies.
As the US scales down its involvement in the Middle East, Israel and Egypt could be brought closer together in an effort to stave off mutual enemies. For all of these reasons, security and intelligence cooperation has remained constant and highly fruitful.
However, tourism between the sides has never really flourished and while, COVID-19 aside, hundreds of thousands of Israelis enjoy visiting Egypt’s historical sites and pristine beaches every year, Egyptians do not flock to Israel. Only a few thousand of them enter as tourists annually. Bureaucratic procedures imposed on Egyptians in order to travel to Israel make it cumbersome but also signal continuous hesitation in the government toward such ties.
Trade between the countries has gradually increased. Four Qualifying Industrial Zones (QIZs) shared by Israel, Egypt and the US, have enhanced trade between Egypt and Israel. Signed in 2004, the QIZ agreement gives Egypt duty-free exports to the US of products manufactured in both countries. The agreement came many years after the peace accord was signed, a testament to the very gradual ripening of ties. A deal between Israel and Egypt that allows for the transport of Israeli natural gas through Egypt to Europe was signed earlier this year.
“In recent years, there are more and more economic ties between the countries,” said Dr. Nimrod Goren, head of Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. “There are also increasing civilian aspects to the relations. It looks like there is a decision on the Egyptian side that the relations can be upgraded and given more visibility.”
Trade relations have weathered many storms. While ambassadors have been mutually sent home in protest many times, the economic ties continued to exist throughout.
Still, the relationship is characterized by a constant tension between the peoples. While the government and the defense establishment on both sides are mostly successful in operating alongside the strain that often rises, the mutual interests do not interest the average Egyptian or Israeli and certainly do not bring them closer.
For years, Israel was isolated in the Arab world. Its first peace agreement was with Egypt and with it came a lot of hope. With great expectations came disappointment among Israelis.
“There is no Egyptian will to create normalization. For Israel this was always the aim,” said Balanga. “Israel wanted to promote bilateral relations on many levels and the aim was for normalization.”
The Egyptian media and education system still generate and disseminate much anti-Israel content. Leading intellectuals are Israel’s staunchest critics within Egypt, often spreading incitement and conspiracy theories about the Jewish state. This has a major influence on public opinion.
“Generation after generation of Egyptians still see Israel as an enemy state,” said Balanga. “Israel is seen as a very strong state in the region and this is viewed as a threat.”
The Palestinian-Israeli conflict has long been at the core of the disagreements between the countries. Egypt sees itself as the guardian of the Palestinian cause, putting it at loggerheads with Israel, especially in times of escalation in the Palestinian territories. Violent protests in front of the Israeli Embassy in Cairo have occurred on many occasions.
“The Palestinian issue is important to both public opinion and the government in Egypt,” said Goren. “This is deeply rooted in how Egypt sees itself in the region.”
Egypt plays a critical role in any escalation Israel has with the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, often mediating between the sides. Egypt also enforces a strict blockade on the Strip, similar to Israel’s. Albeit for its own interests, the Egyptian blockade is a demonstration of agreement regarding Hamas’ rule in Gaza.
The recent improvement in the relationship is also a result of regional shifts and perhaps the sidelining of the Palestinian issue. The Abraham Accords, which paved the way for normalization between Israel and four Arab nations, have perhaps signaled to Egypt that it can also move forward with the relationship. And the recently enhanced economic ties may spill over and lead to better ties between the peoples.
Any progress in the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians could help Egypt and Israel strengthen their ties, but as the stalemate continues, this is highly unlikely.
“Israel has a much healthier attitude to the relations now, not looking only at the security interests, but strengthening other aspects,” said Goren. “Still, there needs to be openness in Egypt in order to increase interactions between the people.”
“We will not be seeing a love story here,” he said.