Egypt denounces Israeli violence, but few expect changes in Cairo-Tel Aviv ties

Despite popular anger in Egypt towards Israel, official relations between Cairo and Tel Aviv have strengthened over the years.
Sunday 20/05/2018
Palestinians wait to travel to Egypt through the Rafah border crossing in the southern Gaza Strip, on May 18.  (AFP)
Sense of relief. Palestinians wait to travel to Egypt through the Rafah border crossing in the southern Gaza Strip, on May 18. (AFP)

CAIRO - Egypt condemned Israel’s violent response to Nakba Day protests in Gaza and reiterated support for the Palestinians, but few observers expect a broader change in Egypt’s foreign relations at a time of increasing regional uncertainty.

“On the move of the US embassy [to Jerusalem], we have said this issue will have negative repercussions on Arab and Islamic public opinion and lead to a kind of dissatisfaction, and some instability and will have repercussions on the Palestinian cause,” Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi said in televised remarks.

Against the backdrop of protests against the US moving its embassy to Jerusalem on May 14, which coincided with the eve of Palestinian Nakba Day, more than 60 Palestinians were killed and hundreds more injured. Egypt’s hospitals in North Sinai, Ismailia province and Cairo were available to treat Palestinian demonstrators, while Cairo ordered the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza to remain open throughout the month of Ramadan to facilitate humanitarian aid and ease the passage of injured Palestinians.

“I issued directives to take the necessary measures to keep the Rafah border crossing open throughout the holy month of Ramadan in a bid to relieve some of the burdens suffered by our brothers in the Gaza Strip,” Sisi tweeted.

The Egyptian Foreign Ministry strongly denounced the targeting of Gaza civilians, expressing rejection of the use of force in cracking down on peaceful marches by people demanding their “legitimate” and “just” rights.

“Egypt fully supports the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement on May 15.

It added that these rights included the founding of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.

However, political observers said the Egyptian anger at Israel’s violent quelling of the protests and the simultaneous relocation of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem have little impact on overall relations between Cairo and Tel Aviv.

Almost a week before Nakba Day, the Israeli embassy in Cairo held a celebration to mark the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding, provoking massive public anger and calls for boycotting the downtown Cairo hotel where the event was held.

Most of the anger was expressed on social media, where users faulted Egyptian authorities for allowing the celebration to go ahead. The anniversary celebration was held on May 8 for the first time since the 2011 uprising in the country. That year, an Egyptian man scaled the Israeli embassy and tore down the Israeli flag amid reports of embassy staff being trapped inside.

“Such a celebration humiliates us all and denigrates the rights of the thousands of Arabs and Palestinians who died over the years to defend Arab land against Israeli occupation,” said Khaled Ali, a human rights lawyer and one-time presidential candidate.

Despite popular anger in Egypt towards Israel, which has remained high since the two countries signed a historic peace deal in 1979, official relations between Cairo and Tel Aviv have strengthened over the years, analysts said.

“Relations between the two countries developed greatly in the past four years and they are expected to develop even more in the future,” said Hassan Nafaa, a political science professor at Cairo University. “But it is important to view these relations within the larger regional context.”

Egypt broke ranks to become the first Arab country to officially recognise Israel in 1979 following four costly wars, a decision that subjected Cairo to intense criticism in the Arab world. Egypt was suspended from the Arab League and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who masterminded the peace deal, was assassinated by Islamist extremists in 1981.

Now, however, a number of Arab states are looking at the prospect of ties with Israel amid broader Arab concern about Iran’s role in the region.

Speaking at the May 8 celebration in downtown Cairo, Israeli Ambassador to Egypt David Govrin called for broadening the partnership between his country and Arab states in order to “advance common interests.”

The Islamic Republic has turned into a common Arab and Sunni security menace by gaining a foothold in a number of Arab countries, including Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon. Israel also views Tehran as a prime threat and Tel Aviv has shown itself ready to utilise military strikes against Iranian targets in Syria.

Govrin said only a common regional struggle can confront Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons and undermine its support to terror organisations in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

Major gas finds off the coasts of Egypt and Israel are opening the door for wider economic cooperation between Cairo and Tel Aviv.

Egypt, which has gigantic gas liquefaction facilities, plans to turn into a regional energy hub by importing gas from Eastern Mediterranean neighbours, liquefying it and then pumping or shipping it to markets in Europe.

In February, an Egyptian company signed a contract worth $15 billion for the import of 64 billion cubic metres of gas from Israel’s Tamar and Leviathan offshore gas fields over ten years.

Egypt’s efforts to restore order in the restive Sinai Peninsula and weed out the presence of the Islamic State (ISIS) also require a degree of coordination with Israel. The security appendix of the 1979 peace treaty between the two states limits the number of army and police troops Egypt can deploy in the region. However, Tel Aviv agreed to allow Egypt to deploy tens of thousands of army and police troops in the areas and to use heavy armoury in the fight against ISIS.

Continued coordination and intelligence-sharing are necessary for the security of both countries, analysts said.

“Egypt is important for Israel for many reasons, including its mediation of a settlement to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict,” said Ahmed Hamad, an independent specialist on Israeli affairs. “This is why good relations between the two states are a prerequisite for regional peace and stability.”