Egypt mulls prospects of relations with Israel before Netanyahu visit

Egypt joins new normalisation track but keeps Palestinian card in hand.
Wednesday 02/12/2020
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the United Nations in New York on September 18, 2017. (AFP)
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the United Nations in New York on September 18, 2017. (AFP)

CAIRO--Egypt is adopting a compromise solution in dealing with the Palestinian issue that combines both keeping a certain distance from the new frameworks for normalisation with Israel and reviving the traditional political settlement process based on international legality. In both cases, Cairo hopes to preserve a central role for itself in any future developments.

Indications of Egyptian interaction with the normalisation file emerged through revelations in Israeli media, on Monday, about an upcoming visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Cairo to meet with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, in the coming weeks.

The Jerusalem Post and Maariv newspapers indicated that the focus of the talks will be on economic issues, and that they will be followed by a meeting between economic delegations. They confirmed that officials from the two countries are currently holding “talks before Netanyahu’s official visit to Cairo.”

Cairo’s choosing of the traditional settlement process was reflected by the contacts that took place between Cairo and Amman with the Palestinian Authority, after a period of suspension, and in the agreement to establish a joint committee that pushes for the convening of an international peace conference next year, to revive discussion of two-state solution ideas.

This approach is likely to fit the positions of the new US President Joe Biden, and may find a positive echo with his administration. The Democrats are said to be resentful of the many actions taken by President Donald Trump’s administration in the region and the world, including his stances on the Palestinian issue.

Analysts say that Cairo was not comfortable with the rapid pace of developments in relations between Israel and some Arab countries on the basis of the so-called “Abraham Accords”. The moves were eroding any substance to the normalisation process with Israel as a strategic card in the hands of Egypt.

Egypt has frozen part of its relations with Israel, and has not allowed these relations to evolve into a form of “normalcy” during the four decades since the signing of the peace treaty with Israel. Furthermore, it has found in the popular rejection of the notion of ​​normalisation with Israel a reason to keep a good margin of manoeuvre at times.

Sign outside the Israeli embassy in Cairo. (AFP)
Sign outside the Israeli embassy in Cairo. (AFP)

Losing this card then, or at least incurring the risk of the fraying of its Arab and Egyptian influence, would constitute a test for Cairo. Either it continues in its reluctance to developing relations with Israel and reap popular support in this regard, or it keeps pace with the current developments and reserves a seat in the new normalisation train.

Observers point out that the current version of normalisation with Israel goes beyond popular sentiments and playing on them for political gain. They see it now instead as part of a large regional project that can grow and expand, and whoever joins it will become part of it, and whoever stays behind must live with that strategic choice.

Because the Palestinian issue is an important focus in this project, Cairo thinks it has found an appropriate formula to interact with it cautiously. While going through the motion of welcoming the Arab peace agreements with Israel, it remained wary of its consequences on its regional role.

Netanyahu’s visit to Cairo would be an indication of Egypt’s openness to the new normalisation process, especially since the information published by Maariv emphasised the economic nature of the visit. But this will not be without future geopolitical consequences.

Egyptian sources revealed to The Arab Weekly that the crisis lies in the expected transformations in the region and Cairo’s position in that framework, as it is the first Arab country to have signed a peace treaty with Israel. It has incurred a heavy price for it when most Arab countries decided to boycott it. But now, Egypt is not sure of its future position on this file any more.

The same sources added that the war option has vanished from the Arab agenda, and now room is available for peace to rise with all the consequences it implies. Cairo will not be able to play an influential role in its Arab environment or at the level of the Palestinian issue unless it participates in the new equation.

Practical course 

Analysts says it is in the interest of the Arab countries involved in normalisation and Israel to cooperate and coordinate with Cairo, and to have it on board in the same boat with them, as its presence gives good political legitimacy to the idea. They see Cairo as the one country next door to Israel that can contend with the project.

Egypt’s approach follows a practical course in dealing with regional and international developments. Cairo has reaped great benefits from adopting such an approach and avoided problems during its transition period when it was busy reorganising state structures after the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule. This approach has also enabled Cairo to establish balanced relations with many powers.

Observers confirm that there is no problem in relations with Israel and the pursuit of the normalisation process. The problem lies however in the place that Egypt would occupy in the next order yet to emerge, in proportion to its size and pivotal role in the region. Cairo seems to trying to maximise this role through consultations with Arab countries concerned with normalisation, to form a safety net for everyone, so that Israel is not the only victor in the upcoming political and economic battle.

Cairo’s reviving of its contacts with the Palestinian Authority and Jordan came as another safety net in which the three parties find common interest. Egypt’s influence could be strengthened in the two paths, both of which are not clear at the moment, as the region is going through a blur regarding the fate of most regional issues.

The Egyptian approach involves working in parallel on both tracks. Such a method confirms the difficulty of choosing, or even the lack of choices in the first place, as it is no longer a luxury to miss the train of normalisation, and it is difficult to wait until the political settlement process moves through an international conference.

Cairo shows a cautious stance towards the first track of normalisation without declaring outright rejection, and a great responsiveness to the second track of political settlement as a means of ensuring its presence and preserving its influence.

Expert on Palestinian and Israeli affairs, Ahmed Fouad Anwar, said that Cairo always tends to wait in its actions. It avoids venturing out on issues that are characterised by a high degree of fluidity and controlled by several parties. But it will not accept to have its role side-stepped, because the paths of normalisation and settlement touch upon a strategic axis related to the centrality of its role in the Palestinian file, believes Anwar

He added to The Arab Weekly that there was still a long way to go before one could see any results assuming that there won’t be a conflict between the two paths, which is the formula that is satisfactory to Egypt and the Arab countries in support of normalisation, because resolving the contradiction between Arab obligations towards the Palestinian cause and regional developments is a very important goal.

Cairo is working to find an appropriate formula to solve this crisis through its multiple talks with the concerned parties, in order to achieve the best outcomes and reduce Arab losses.