Analysis: Is the coolness which characterized the relationship between Israel and Egypt over the past several decades warming? And what exactly is behind this change of pace in cooperation?
Over the course of the past year, there have been more and more indications of the warming of diplomatic relations between Egypt and Israel: an official public visit by Dore Gold, the director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, who came to Cairo to re-inaugurate the Israeli embassy in the country; the release of Odeh Tarabin, an Israeli Arab who was convicted of spying for Israel and was in Egyptian prison for over 15 years; the appointment of a new Egyptian Ambassador to Israel after a three year absence, and even a public meeting between the Egyptian ambassador and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier this week.
Although the Egyptians have been busy over the past few years with internal issues, principally dealing with the security and economic situation, their relations with Israel have been in the headlines as of late.
The peak came when Egyptian MP and journalist provocateur Tawfiq Okasha publicly met with Israeli Ambassador to Cairo Haim Koren. This elicited anger within the Egyptian parliament, which suspended him for ten sessions, and where he had a shoe thrown at him earlier this week.
The Okasha affair is just another layer in a series of events which mark this trend. A lot has already been written about the security cooperation between the two countries due to the threat posed by ISIS in Sinai, as well as the fact the Egyptian Air Force crosses into Israeli airspace in order to better fight jihadists in the peninsula.
What might be defined in Israel as warming relations, others would view as Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and his close circle sending out feelers, in light of the understanding that present developments in the region make it impossible to keep the status quo – whereby the relations between the two countries were limited to dialogue between Egyptian military officers and high ranking Israeli security personnel.
38 years of peace
In August of 2015, the media widely covered the discovery of a huge natural gas reservoir off the coast of Egypt. However, it later turned out that it would take time for Egypt to reap the benefits of this find. In this case, exporting gas from Israel becomes a very relevant option. If in this hypothetical scenario the natural gas plan is approved, and if Egypt needs this gas and wants it – the Egyptian populace is a large factor that needs to be considered. There is still a lot of anger at one of the previous oil ministers, who was seen as a “traitor” for selling Egyptian assets to Israel.
With that being said, al-Sisi is aware that Egyptian public opinion is still very much dominated by the Palestinian issue. The Egyptian president, who said he spoke to Netanyahu over the phone about this topic already, explicitly stated in previous interviews that if Israel makes a move on the Palestinian issue, then there will be openness among the Egyptian public towards Israel. He isn’t talking about a comprehensive agreement with the Palestinians, just a development on the diplomatic level.
He isn’t doing this out of a love of Zion, but out of an understanding of how interwoven Israeli and Egyptian interests are. Next month will mark the 38th year of the peace agreement between the two countries, which was also included commitments on the Palestinians issue, which never materialized.
The two countries developed unprecedented shared interests which derive from two mutual threats: the threat from Iran on the one hand, and the threat posed by ISIS and Hamas on the other.
Infrastructure Minister Yuval Steinitz’s slip up last month that Egypt was flooding some of the Hamas tunnels at the request of Israel, and the strange clarification he issued in its wake, revealed some of what is going on behind the scenes in the Israel-Egypt relationship.
Help in Washington
Senior Israeli officials often visit Cairo, including Netanyahu’s close confidant Yitzhak Molcho as well as other high ranking military officials. Egyptian President al-Sisi also recently met with a delegation of Jewish leaders, amongst them another close associate of Netanyahu’s – Malcolm Hoenlein.
Israel also frequently grants the Egyptians permission to increase their forces and operate freely in the Sinai in the war against ISIS, while ignoring the peace agreement’s military appendix.
And if that weren’t enough, Israel helps the Egyptians with the American administration in an effort to convince public opinion that Egypt is fighting terror, so that Washington is more liberal in its aid – military or otherwise – to Egypt.
It was only recently that a delegation from the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, led by Chairman Tzahi Hanegbi, highlighted to officials in Washington “Egypt’s considerable willingness to deal decisively with ISIS in Sinai, and with the smuggling of weapons through Sinai to Hamas in Gaza.”
Add to that the messages which were sent from Jerusalem, according to which Israel would like to see Egypt incorporated into the regional alliance with Greece and Cyprus.
Nothing lasts forever
The Okasha incident didn’t come out of nowhere. Recently, there have been a few incidents that brought the Israel-Egypt relationship to the forefront. For instance, last month the spokesman for the Egyptian Soccer Union, Azmi Mujahid, was asked if he approved of Israel hosting the World Under-19 Soccer Tournament, and gave a surprising response, saying that he didn’t see any problem with playing in Israel, as Cairo has diplomatic relations with Jerusalem. He even said that the “hated” Qatar is more dangerous for Egyptians than Israel is. “Separate sports from politics. As long as there are diplomatic relations, there is no problem.” This is an interesting response in light of the Egyptian custom to back out of sporting events in which Israel participates.
Even before that, there was an outrage over the inclusion of a book written by Israel Army Radio journalist Jacky Hugi in the Cairo International Book Fair. The Egyptian Minister of Culture was asked about the incident, and permitted the book at the fair, which also included a book by another Israeli author.
Furthermore, reports in Egypt indicate that for the first time, the Camp David Peace Accords are being taught in Egyptian history classes.
These events signify a trend – according to which there is an understanding on the Egyptian side that if they continue to treat the peace coolly, they will not last.
Meanwhile, it is still too early to tell what will come of the feelers the Egyptians sent. The fierce opposition to Okasha from the Nassarist parliamentarians was expected, and it is important to note that despite the demand to suspend him because of his meeting with the Israeli ambassador, Okasha was suspended because of his behavior following the meeting.
Okasha is currently standing in the eye of the storm and at the heart of the Egyptian feelers, and will always be described as a “trouble maker.”