Egypt and Israel May Be Cooperating on Gaza but ‘Normalization’ Remains Distant
However, small steps toward increased cooperation are part of a consistent trend
Israel’s Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi arrived in Cairo on Sunday to meet with his Egyptian counterpart, Sameh Shoukry, the first such official visit of an Israeli foreign minister to Egypt in over a decade.
The visit came after the ministers exchanged several phone calls during the recent round of fighting between Israel and Gaza. Egyptian officials worked closely with the two sides to facilitate a cease-fire that would return calm to the region and, indeed, a temporary cessation to the hostilities was reached through Egyptian mediation. Now, the countries are looking to achieve long-term quiet between Israel and Gaza’s rulers, Hamas.
Ashkenazi tweeted before the start of the visit that “we will discuss establishing a permanent cease-fire with Hamas, a mechanism for providing humanitarian aid and the reconstruction of Gaza with a pivotal role played by the international community.” The minister later tweeted that “we discussed enhancing economic and trade cooperation, including the renewal of direct flights between our countries.”
Following the ministerial visit, Israel’s ambassador to Egypt, Amira Oron, in an interview with the Israeli news website Ynet, spoke of the possibility of furthering the economic ties between the countries and said that “we want to be in a momentum of widening the scope of our relations with Egypt.”
The relationship between the countries since 2014 is excellent, they’re the best they’ve been since the Camp David Accords
Israel and Egypt do cooperate closely on matters of security. Dr. Haim Koren, former Israeli ambassador to Egypt and an expert on the Arab world who currently teaches at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, explained that the current cooperation on security issues arises from Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi’s identification of Iran and Islamist terror groups as his country’s greatest threats. Following this development in Egypt’s perspective on national security, “there arose, for the first time since the founding of the state [of Israel] a coalition which includes Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan – and Israel – that identifies the same actors as their most critical threats,” Koren told The Media Line. This larger coalition is in itself a force pushing the neighboring countries closer, he says.
“The relationship between the countries since 2014 is excellent, they’re the best they’ve been since the Camp David Accords” signed in 1978, Koren said.
In addition to the security realm, Egypt and Israel have been drawing closer on energy matters. Together, they worked to launch the East Mediterranean Gas Forum, an international organization looking to ensure better dialogue and cooperation on the gas reserves discovered in the eastern Mediterranean. Notably, the Palestinian Authority also is a member. Israel is exporting natural gas to Egypt and hopes to increase its exports to the European market with the help of Egypt’s natural gas liquefying plants.
Tourism is another area in which there has been talk recently that points to closer relations. Israel reportedly is considering lowering the travel warning level on the Sinai Peninsula, which attracts hundreds of thousands of Israelis annually. In addition, direct flights to the Egyptian vacation destination Sharm al-Sheikh also are on the table.
Israel’s relations with Egypt are famously characterized as a cold peace. This long list of developments may be seen as an indication of a warming of ties which could bring the relationship of the two countries closer to that of the recently established relations between Israel and the UAE.
Dr. Ofir Winter, an expert on Israel-Egypt relations at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, suggests that economic issues are a major motivator for Egypt. “I think that the economy is a central issue in Egypt and has been so for several years. The main challenges faced by the country at present are economic challenges,” he told The Media Line. COVID-19 and its limitations did nothing to help, of course. Tourism is an important industry in Egypt, and Winter estimates that it decreased by 75% during the pandemic. The increased cooperation with Israel, he says, may help its southern neighbor economically.
Winter adds that Cairo’s relations with Israel recently helped it score points with Washington. “Egypt very much wants to get closer to Biden … and it’s using its role as mediator between Israel and Hamas in Gaza to show that it is an asset to the US, that it is a force for stability and peace in the region,” he said.
Winter concludes that there has been progress in the ties between the countries, and there is greater cooperation; however, the steps forward have been taken within the traditional framework of the Egypt-Israel relationship: security and some economic and tourist activity. At present, it is too early to talk of a thaw in relations that would bring Egypt and Israel closer to what was enabled by the Abraham Accords.
Egypt very much wants to get closer to Biden … and it’s using its role as mediator between Israel and Hamas in Gaza to show that it is an asset to the US, that it is a force for stability and peace in the region
Walid Kazziha, a professor of political science at The American University in Cairo and an expert on relations between the Arab world and Israel, notes that there have been moments in the past when the two countries have drawn closer. “However, these moments never lasted long enough to sustain a stable relationship. Very often, Israeli violent actions against the Palestinians under occupation intervened to jeopardize such efforts,” he told The Media Line.
Kazziha believes that the only path to warmer ties between Israel and Egypt is “when Egyptians, as a people, become more convinced that peace with Israel is not only good for them but also good for the Palestinians. If that happens Egyptians will be willing to receive Israelis with open arms, and they may even open their homes to them.” Without this, whatever progress is made in cooperation regarding security and financial matters is “by no means an indication of a warm peace materializing,” he said.
Koren, however, says that Israel is a strategic partner that is greatly valued by the Egyptian government. An example, he says, is the fact that Israel repeatedly insists that Cairo act as mediator in the region, a position that entails great prestige, especially in the Middle East. This warm connection between governments is pushing forward changes outside the realm of security and energy, which may in time encourage a more significant change.
The former ambassador notes that Sisi has included the peace accords between the countries in Egyptian schools’ curriculum. “Now, in a new museum, the national Egyptian museum, there is a section which revolves around Jewish life there,” he said.
These are small changes and they have been made very carefully and slowly, but over time, they may have a large impact.