(July 7, 2020 / JNS) When Mossad chief Yossi Cohen flew to Egypt last week to meet with the head of Egypt’s General Intelligence Service Abbas Kamal and Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, he was likely confident that the meeting would go well. Unlike his visit with Jordan’s King Abdullah, also in late June, where Cohen heard more pushback against Israel’s plans to apply sovereignty to Judea and Samaria (Jordan has been highly vocal of its displeasure) Egypt has remained largely silent on the matter.
And while Egypt, Germany, France and Jordan issued a joint statement on Tuesday saying that they categorically reject Israel’s plans, and that such a move would “violate international law and could also have an impact on relations with Israel,” Cairo has not independently criticized Israel the way the other three have.
Yoel Guzansky, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies, said Egypt tends to be “less sensitive about these issues.”
He told JNS that Egypt is currently focused on a number of other issues, such as problems with Ethiopia and Sudan. (Tensions have arisen over Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam project, which could negatively affect Egypt’s water supply since both countries share the Nile River).
“The fact that Egypt is quiet publicly doesn’t mean it is quiet privately,” he noted.
Guzansky pointed out other factors that influence Egypt’s quiet approach to Israel’s plans.
Egypt’s relationship with Israel is important for fighting against the presence of terror groups in the Sinai, according to Guzansky, and Egypt also “does not want to jeopardize its relationship with [U.S. President Donald] Trump.”
The country is also fighting Turkey for strategic superiority in neighboring Libya—something “very high on Egypt’s agenda,” according to Guzansky.
Dana Stroul, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told JNS the pro-sovereignty camp in Israel wagers that “each Arab government stands to lose too much from cutting off relations with Israel, even if annexation takes place unilaterally outside of bilateral negotiations.”
She said that “Egyptian leaders certainly do not support unilateral annexation.” But instead of publicly condemning Israel, they are raising their concerns quietly and through intelligence channels.
“Egypt’s relationship with Israel has remained largely under the table and in the security realm; issues are worked out privately among the professionals,” according to Stroul.
Peace between the countries ‘will not collapse the day after’
She listed a number of reasons that Egypt has chosen a “more subdued approach.”
The first, she said, “is to protect the relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump, who has embraced President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and eliminated virtually all U.S. criticism of his government.”
The second is that Arab leaders don’t want to be on “the receiving end of an angry tweet [by Trump] threatening to cut assistance or downgrade the relationship due to criticism of Israeli annexation.”
Third, Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel “has allowed the Egyptian military to focus on the real threats to Egypt’s security: counterterrorism, porous borders to the west with Libya and to the south with Sudan, and maritime threats.”
She also noted that “in the Sinai, the Egyptian army has not succeeded in effectively eliminating that ISIS branch and receives intelligence and other forms of support from Israel.”
Even if Israel applies sovereignty, she said, “Israeli security support and intelligence cooperation is too valuable to risk losing given the very real threat of ISIS directing attacks inside Egypt.”
Fourth, Cairo “sought to facilitate Palestinian reconciliation for years, and similar other governments in the region are frustrated by the ineffective Palestinian leadership in Ramallah,” led by Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas.
Stroul said that if Israel extends sovereignty, it could “expect angry statements and temporary damage to Egyptian-Israeli diplomatic relations.”
While the peace agreement between the two countries “will not collapse the day after,” the routine Egyptian-Israeli engagements “might be interrupted thereby damaging a pillar of Israel’s security,” she said. “Egyptian media will also speak out forcefully and in condemnation of annexation, but the government controls the press and can dial up or dial back the pressure.”
So “between the COVID-19 pandemic, the Egyptian health system’s fragility and associated economic strains after years of reform measures to stabilize the economy, the war waging in Libya, active ISIS threat in the Sinai and Ethiopia on the verge of filling the Renaissance dam, el-Sisi has more than enough on his plate,” summed up Stroul.
For all of these reasons, she stated, el-Sisi may have come to the realization that focusing on the application of Israeli sovereignty and the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict “is a lesser priority.”
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