For the first time in 13 years, an Israeli foreign minister (Gabi Ashkenazi, a former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff) visited Egypt last month for talks with his Egyptian counterpart (Sameh Shoukri). At the same time, the head of Egyptian intelligence, Maj. Gen. Abbas Kamel, landed in Israel to discuss the situation regarding Gaza with Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Gantz. Both visits are parts of a bid by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to take the lead in stabilizing the ceasefire between Hamas and Israel, and managing the next steps in the broader Israeli-Palestinian context.
Egypt has already benefited from this; the initiative broke the ice between Sisi and the Biden administration. Israel stands to gain as well. Unlike their predecessors, Sisi and Shoukri have welcomed the Abraham Accords. Israel and Egypt have common interests in the eastern Mediterranean, and the Egyptians, for their own reasons, do not trust Hamas.
Still, Israel is entitled to insist that as mediators, the Egyptians should keep Jerusalem off the table. It would be dangerous for many in the region were Hamas to gain a strategic foothold there. Israel also should insist on a swift release of its citizens held by Hamas, and the return of the bodies of soldiers held in Gaza since 2014. Additionally, it would be useful for the Egyptian government to curb the coarse anti-Israeli and often anti-Semitic discourse in its state-owned media and the Egyptian public domain, which acts to constrain Cairo’s options.
Comparison with 2014
Back during operation “Operation Protective Edge,” in the summer of 2014, it took seven long and difficult weeks for the Egyptians to bring about understandings which made it possible to establish a ceasefire between Israel and the “armed factions” in Gaza, namely Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. This time, in what Israel called “Operation Guardian of the Walls” and Hamas dubbed “the Sword of Al-Quds [Jerusalem],” it took less than two weeks.
Then as now, Israel saw Egypt as the one and only regional player qualified to manage the endgame. Qatar may act as the “chief financial officer” for Gaza, but the “CEO” authority and geo-political control must remain in Cairo. Egypt shares many of Israel’s concerns about destabilizing and subversive forces in the region.
Indeed, in 2014, Israel felt obliged to bluntly dissuade U.S. Secretary of State Kerry from bringing Turkey and Qatar into the fray, which would have undermined Egypt’s position. (Tukey and Qatar are active sponsors of Muslim Brotherhood elements across the region, including Hamas.)
However, at the time, the depth of hatred between Hamas and the Sisi regime posed a serious hindrance. In July 2013, it was Sisi who overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohammed Morsi. In August 2013, violent action was taken against the Brotherhood demonstrators at the Rabaa al-Adawiya Square in Cairo. There is real blood, not just bad blood, between Egypt and Hamas. It was only when the IDF intensified its pressure that the armed factions finally agreed to overcome their bitterness with Egypt and make their way to Cairo.
Things have changed, at least at the level of appearances. The Egyptians still detest Hamas and conduct all business with the “armed factions of the resistance” via intelligence channels that do not confer on Hamas and PIJ any diplomatic legitimacy. Still, Egypt has come to accept the present government in Gaza as a fait accompli. For the time being, at least, there is no Egyptian expectation of an internal uprising against the Hamas regime, based on the model of the “Tamarrud” movement in Egypt in June 2013. Hamas leadership, too, has come to understand that Sisi holds the keys to their future.
Sisi moved quickly to assert this centrality in the recent crisis, to ensure that Erdoğan’s Turkey does not steal his thunder, among other reasons. Erdoğan has called Sisi a usurper, and consequently, Sisi looks upon today’s Turkey as an enemy, despite some recent signs of reconciliation. Egypt went so far as to offer, upfront, half a billion dollars for reconstruction in Gaza (while seeking mechanisms that would avoid the funds falling into Hamas’s control). Whether these funds will be disbursed, and how the impoverished nation of Egypt can afford this, remains to be seen.
The American angle
After “Operation Pillar of Defense” in November 2012, it was Egypt’s role in achieving a ceasefire that brought then-president Morsi into Hillary Clinton’s good graces. This time, the crisis in Gaza led to the first-ever phone conversation between President Joe Biden and Sisi, soon followed by a second call. Eager to find a way forward without empowering Hamas, Washington lent Egypt authority and support.
Voices in Congress, and in the American and European public, are still being heard accusing Sisi of human-right violations and demanding an end to U.S. arms supplies to Egypt. But for Israel, unhappy as it may be with some Egyptian practices, American aid to Egypt remains the key to the stability of the 1979 Israel-Egypt Peace Agreement. Thus, the signs of a U.S.-Egypt rapprochement (after a long period in which Biden did not see fit to call Sisi) are welcomed in Jerusalem.
In the past, Israel has shown a considerable degree of flexibility in matters related to reconstruction for Gaza—working with Egypt, the U.N. Special Representative and Qatar. This might again be the case now.
Still, on three key points, Israel can and should use its leverage to ensure that its core principles are not ignored.
1. No clause or even implied language in any exchange of positions should provide Hamas with a foothold in the affairs of Jerusalem, which was the reason Hamas went to war in the first place. There would be a grave danger to Israel, Egypt and many others in the region were Hamas able to claim for itself “guardianship of Al-Aqsa.”
2. There must be a swift solution to the enduring agony caused by Hamas’s retention of the Israeli captives. The terror group is holding the bodies of two Israeli soldiers, Lt. Hadar Goldin and St.-Sgt. Oron Shaul, who were killed in 2014, as well as Avraham “Avera” Mengistu, a mentally challenged man of Jewish Ethiopian origin and one (and perhaps up to three) young Arab Israelis who crossed the border of their own volition.
Israeli public anger at Jerusalem’s failure to secure their return is growing and will constrain approval by Israel of any large-scale initiative on Gaza reconstruction.
3. At least while seeking to mediate between Israel and Hamas, it would be appropriate for Cairo to tone down the shrill level of Egyptian media and public attacks on Israel, Zionism and the Jews. While the situation clearly has improved since the days of Hosni Mubarak (whose policy was to befriend key Israelis but create an atmosphere of hate towards Israel as a state), much remains to be done. The recent sharp rebuke issued by the U.S. State Department to Erdoğan for his continuing anti-Semitic rhetoric should serve as a warning to Sisi, too.
IDF Col. (res.) Dr. Eran Lerman is vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies. Lerman was deputy director for foreign policy and international affairs at the National Security Council in the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office. He held senior posts in IDF Military Intelligence for more than 20 years and teaches in the Middle East Studies program at Shalem College in Jerusalem.
This article was first published by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies.