The joint Israel Defense Forces-Egyptian military committee, which was formed when the two countries made peace in 1979, convened recently within the framework of biannual meetings. The committee gathers every six months, once in Israel and once in Egypt. Officials use the forum to discuss common military and security issues, and at the traditional dinners at the respective ambassadors’ residences, they share their views on diplomatic affairs, as well.
The meetings have always been held in a positive atmosphere and in accordance with the “Chatham House Rule,” whereby anyone who attends a meeting is free to use information from the discussion but is not allowed to reveal who made any particular comment. In the most recent meeting in Cairo, we learned that Israel’s political echelon consented to Egypt’s request to allow the Egyptian army to enter the demilitarized Sinai Peninsula to fight the jihadist terrorist groups operating there.
After many years of combating terror, Egypt is still far from winning this fight on its own soil. A little more than a year ago, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi publicly declared that some 20,000 Egyptian soldiers were currently in the Sinai. The number of Egyptian troops near Israel’s border, it stands to reason, will substantially increase in light of the recent request.
Allowing Egyptian soldiers near the border—then and now—directly contravenes the peace treaty, which limits the number of soldiers and types of weapons that Egypt can deploy beyond the Suez Canal. The purpose of this clause is to prevent future surprise attacks.
It’s important to note that then, and now, Egypt only deployed military forces to the Sinai after issuing a formal request, and only after Israel granted full permission. The countries’ improved relations have been conducive to this dynamic.
Some Israeli officials have expressed concern over this arrangement, which is only natural. After all, just a few years ago, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood ascended to power in Egypt and seriously considered revoking the peace treaty with Israel. Had he done so, Israel would be left with Egyptian soldiers on our border. To everyone’s relief, this never materialized.
Other Israeli officials hold the opposite view. The unprecedented security and military ties with Egypt were forged due to mutual interests and historical changes taking place in the Middle East. Above all else, Egypt is showing a willingness not to conceal, as it did in the past, its ties to Israel.
This is a welcome shift that should also be utilized to channel relations in the right direction. For many years, there was a gap between the positive security ties between the countries and their otherwise anemic bilateral relations. Commerce, tourism, culture, business and more—all virtually non-existent.
In the area of open bilateral relations, El-Sisi faces obstacles he will struggle to overcome. Any change in this regard will require time and patience. The professional associations, the public’s hostility, a contentious media—all these are preventing him from openly cultivating bilateral relations with Israel.
The current atmosphere, though, is a good opportunity for progress. Hence, Israel must identify areas in which El-Sisi is freer to enact change. Until now, post-Anwar Sadat Egypt prohibited Israeli diplomatic envoys in Egypt from developing direct ties with the Egyptian echelon. Conversely, the doors in Israel are always wide open for Egyptian diplomats.
Now, in this rare hour of goodwill between the countries, and because Israel has allowed, for the second time, Egypt to increase the size of its military contingent in the Sinai at El-Sisi’s request and at Israel’s own risk, albeit calculated, Israel must feel at ease to ask the Egyptian leader to allow its diplomats to forge direct ties with senior Egyptian officials—ministers, party leaders, university directors and more. El-Sisi can issue a directive of this sort, which is more administrative in nature than political.
At this stage, he can tell Egyptian ministers that they are free to meet with Israeli Ambassador Amira Oron, for work purposes.
Just as El-Sisi has cultivated a national narrative of forging a better future, we Israelis can create our own narrative of forging more normal relations. We can do this by striking while the iron’s hot.
Itzhak Levanon is an Israeli diplomat and former Israeli ambassador to Egypt.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.