(February 20, 2019 / JNS)
After eight years, the Foreign Ministry’s director general decided to keep Israeli embassy staff in Egypt over the weekend instead of returning them home. This was a welcome decision; the staff’s permanent presence in Cairo allows it to develop and maintain continuous diplomatic work, as expected of any embassy.
The attack on the embassy by an enraged mob in late 2011 and the staff’s consequent hasty withdrawal left Israel without a building for its embassy, with a very minimal team in place, and diplomats who return home to Israel every weekend. As a result, Israel’s diplomatic mission in Egypt has taken a hit. This unacceptable reality has persisted, as stated, for eight years. And although the Foreign Ministry’s decision is a step in the right direction, the embassy will still only function on a semi-normal basis.
Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Gilad, an authority on Egyptian affairs, says it isn’t viable to lean the countries’ relations on one leg (security-intelligence), and that two legs are needed to ensure stability. The current Egyptian regime, headed by President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, doesn’t hide its good relations with Israel and is fostering a positive atmosphere. This provides a window of opportunity to implement full-fledged, proper diplomatic relations. The Egyptian parliament’s decision to extend El-Sisi’s term in office for many more years opens the window even further, allowing the country time to stabilize its relationship on more than just the one leg.
To restore diplomatic relations to pre-2011 normalcy, Israel must quickly find a new building for its embassy and staff, including a consular services department working to encourage mutual tourism and promote Israeli interests in Egypt—precisely as the Egyptian Embassy in Tel Aviv operates. The staff has to be the same size as before, to pursue and strengthen the countries’ diplomatic ties.
In the stormy Middle East, close relations between Israel and Egypt are vitally important.
The Foreign Ministry, to be sure, always has to contend with complex challenges across the globe, but Israel’s relations with Egypt need to be prioritized.
We must not miss this window of opportunity or squander the current regional climate to re-establish the Israeli presence in Cairo, as it was before 2011. The Israeli-Egypt peace accord includes agreement on fully operational embassies. With El-Sisi firmly in power for a long time to come, we must move forward with determination to bring this to fruition.
Itzhak Levanon is the former Israeli ambassador to Egypt.