What Lies Ahead for Israel’s New Ambassador to Egypt
Amira Oron will have her hands full, though analysts believe she is the right person for a difficult job
Israel’s cabinet has approved the appointment of Amira Oron as the country’s new ambassador to Egypt.
Tapped for the post in late 2018, a vote on her candidacy was delayed as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu reportedly sought to give it to a Likud party loyalist. During that time, Israel’s government fell and the country went to three inconclusive elections, with Netanyahu finally establishing a formal coalition six weeks ago after considerable politicking.
Oron previously served in a more junior position in Cairo and was the country’s top envoy to Turkey.
Despite the landmark 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, surveys show that the Egyptian public, on the whole, harbors anti-Israel views. Nevertheless, coordination at the political and defense levels has improved during the presidency of Abdel al-Fattah al-Sisi, who has been instrumental in mediating between Israel and Hamas while expanding security cooperation in the Sinai Peninsula to combat the emergence of Sinai Province, an Islamic State affiliate.
Since Sisi deposed former Muslim Brotherhood-associated president Mohamed Morsi in 2013, dozens – if not hundreds – of members of the Egyptian military and security forces have been killed in counter-insurgency missions against the ISIS-linked group. During this period, Sinai Province has perpetrated multiple massacres, most notably the murder of over 300 worshipers at the Rawduh Sufi mosque, the deadliest attack in Egypt’s modern history.
In response, Israel has reportedly allowed the Egyptian army to remilitarize parts of Sinai in contravention of the terms of the peace agreement, and has conducted its own operations against the jihadists.
“In terms of diplomacy, the ambassador usually functions as the primary liaison between the local government and Israel. However, in the case of Egypt, more actors are in play,” Itzhak Levanon, a former Israeli ambassador to Cairo, explained to The Media Line.
“Since there are problems in Sinai, there is direct cooperation between the Israeli and Egyptian armies that would not necessarily include the envoy, as well as open channels of communication between the countries’ intelligence agencies,” he noted.
Levanon believes that Oron’s foremost challenge will be to build economic bridges to grassroots organizations, as well as to tourism and media companies. In the past, these sectors have demonstrated animosity toward the Jewish state.
“It is a difficult task, and it will be interesting to see if doors will be opened for her,” Levanon added while emphasizing that Sisi had already taken steps to improve Israel’s image and standing among his citizenry.
“This will help, but it is not like pressing a button and there is normalization,” he elaborated. “That said, I know Amira and think she is the best choice for the position. She is familiar with Egypt due to her past diplomatic experience there. She speaks Arabic and I am convinced she will succeed.”
Oron’s confirmation comes at a particularly sensitive juncture, with Netanyahu this week having restated his vow to apply sovereignty over all Jewish communities in the West Bank, and perhaps over the Jordan Valley as well, starting July 1.
While Sisi has remained relatively mum on the matter, he has invested huge amounts of political capital in trying to bridge the longstanding divide between the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. He is thus liable to strongly oppose any move that jeopardizes the relative calm in both territories.
Analysts believe that Cairo will publicly condemn the prospective Israeli move but for numerous reasons will stop short of annulling what is described almost universally as a “cold” peace. Not least of these reasons is Sisi’s dependence on US military aid as well as massive loans from the International Monetary Fund, over which Washington projects great influence.
Indeed, all of this comes on the backdrop of ongoing Egyptian economic turmoil that has intensified amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Additionally, Sisi continues to come under fire from rights groups over what is widely perceived as a systematic crackdown on political opponents and, more generally, civil liberties. His country is concurrently becoming increasingly enmeshed in the conflict in neighboring Libya.
Zvi Mazel, who also served as an Israeli ambassador to Egypt, agrees that Oron will face significant obstacles due to the intricacies inherent in the job.
“Regarding normalization, there has been no improvement since the time of [Hosni Mubarak, who was in power for three decades before being overthrown in 2011],” Mazel told The Media Line.
“There is no interaction… in the fields of science, culture, sports, etc…. There is only limited trade – maybe $150-$200 million annually – aside from huge deals, mainly related to gas and cotton. And these are between major Israeli and Egyptian companies, so the masses are not in any way involved,” he said.
While acknowledging the huge importance of the flip-side of the coin – namely, that Israel and Egypt have been at peace for over 40 years following major wars in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973 – Mazel suggests that the “very delicate” prevailing situation means that Oron will have her hands full.
“The main goal of the ambassador is to create a network of friends across all spectrums, not only in the political sphere, but in academia, for example, and then to explore whether there are possibilities for cooperation,” he said. “Efforts are made to develop contacts in most segments of society even though there are many barriers.”
It appears, then, that Oron will, from the get-go, be navigating choppy waters that are liable to immediately put her diplomatic skills to the test.