(September 14, 2021 / JNS) Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s official meeting on Monday with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi indicates that the Egyptian government is ready to work publicly with Israel’s new government.
Egypt broke the Arab taboo on relations with Israel when it signed a peace treaty with the Jewish state in March 1979. Nevertheless, Egypt has been reluctant to implement the treaty’s “normalization” clauses, keeping to a “cold peace” instead. Cairo has discouraged its citizens from interactions with Israelis, and government-controlled media has remained hostile and occasionally anti-Semitic. There has been some cooperation between the two countries in agriculture and energy, and for a while, Israeli tourists were welcome in Egypt. But the narrow bilateral ties were primarily conducted via military channels.
The Egyptian posture toward Israel seemed to signal the limits on relations with Jerusalem for an Arab state. To a great extent, Jordan emulated the Egyptian position. (Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994). In contrast, the 2020 Abraham Accords constituted a dramatic change in approach, encouraging multi-faceted people-to-people interactions, particularly between the United Arab Emirates and Israel.
The fanfare around the Abraham Accords, as well as the fact that Israel has a new prime minister, probably made it easier for Cairo to invite Bennett. The cumulative impact of enhanced covert security cooperation in recent years between the two countries likely also played a role.
Israel and Egypt share a burgeoning common strategic agenda. The 1979 peace treaty was primarily the result of Sadat’s realization that Egypt needed a drastic change in its foreign policy, moving to a pro-American orientation instead of relying on the Soviet Union, coupled with weariness regarding the conflict with Israel. Egypt is still looking to Washington, and needs Israel more than ever to deflect American and European criticism regarding human rights violations.
Moreover, U.S. assistance to Egypt, $1.3 billion a year, has played an important role in Egypt’s economic and military development, and this is linked to American assistance to Israel. While Egypt has tried to diversify its arms suppliers, Jerusalem has a clear interest in continuous American influence in Cairo.
Undoubtedly, Cairo and Jerusalem think alike with regard to the Afghanistan debacle and the regional implications of American retreat from the Middle East, and in particular the resulting reinvigoration of Muslim extremism around the world.
At the regional level, Jerusalem and Cairo share concern about Iran’s aggressive policies, although Israel’s threat perception is greater. However, they are fully in sync with regard to Turkey’s promotion of Islamic extremism (with Qatar) and its neo-Ottoman aspirations. Egypt and Israel are also allied in their opposition to growing Turkish assertiveness in the eastern Mediterranean. Egypt is a key member of the strategic alignment embodied by the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), alongside Greece, Cyprus and Israel—an alignment designed, inter alia, to contain Turkish quest for hegemony in the region.
Israel lends substantial support to Egypt in the latter’s efforts to suppress an Islamic insurgency in Sinai. The Gaza Strip is sandwiched between Egypt and Israel and ruled by Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, the arch-enemy of the Egyptian regime. Hamas has assisted the Islamists in Sinai. While not averse to bleeding the Jewish state a bit, Egypt is interested in lowering the flames of Israel-Hamas confrontation and has acquired an important role in the mediation between the two sides. This diplomatic role gains Egypt points in Jerusalem and Washington, and gives it leverage over Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza.
Egyptian and Israeli interests also converge in Libya. Both countries side with Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the commander of the Tobruk-based Libyan National Army, while Turkey intervened in 2020 in the Libyan civil war to prevent the fall of the Government of National Accord in Tripoli, that includes Islamist elements. Israel’s new partner, the UAE, has also assisted Haftar.
Even in Syria, Israel and Egypt seem to have the same preferences. Egypt opposed the efforts of Sunni rebel groups to depose Bashar al-Assad, and Israel, too, has been careful not to destabilize Assad’s regime—to preserve Israel’s freedom of action against Iranian targets in Syria in line with the quid quo pro reached between Israel and Russia after the September 2015 Russian military intervention.
Egyptians often call their country “umm ad-dunya,” the mother of the world, expressing self-importance. However, ever since the heyday of Nasser, Egypt’s regional weight has declined. Cairo’s focus is primarily domestic, like that of most Arab countries. Nevertheless, Egypt is the most populous and important Arab state, with the strongest military among Israel’s neighbors. Therefore, Egypt is an important strategic partner for Israel that rates a high priority on Israel’s foreign policy agenda.
Professor Efraim Inbar is president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.
This article was first published by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.
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