Israel, Egypt further sideline the US
The warming ties between the leaders of Egypt and Israel come as no surprise to close watchers of the region but what is striking is how boldly Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu have acted in going public with their close cooperation.
“Either we hang together or we are all hanged separately,” Benjamin Franklin is reputed to have said in the debate over declaring American independence in 1776. Today, Franklin’s insight explains the strategic logic driving the remarkable Israel-Egypt relationship.
Both countries share the same deadly enemy — the Islamic State (ISIS) affiliates seeking to wreak havoc in the Sinai peninsula. Sinai terrorists have taken advantage of the hitherto highly successful demilitarisation provisions of the 1979 Israel-Egypt Peace treaty to establish themselves.
Cairo and Tel Aviv also share real alarm — and with good reason — at the surge in Iran’s power in the region made possible by Russia’s successful military intervention on President Bashar Assad’s behalf in the Syrian war and by US Secretary of State John Kerry’s witless freeing of tens of billions in frozen Iranian assets as a central component of the P5+1 nuclear agreement.
In addition, Sisi’s key strategic ally has always been Saudi Arabia and the Saudis and Israel have quietly worked together against the same enemies threatening them both over the past dozen years.
Riyadh may be understandably concerned that having Egyptian leaders visit Israel and having Netanyahu and his people openly praise Sisi too much could play into the hands of the Egyptian leader’s enemies but they hate him so much that all concerned probably rightly reckon it makes little difference.
Egypt’s increasingly open relationship with the Israelis is also very good news for Palestinians. It has been all too clear that US President Barack Obama would not do much to advance or resuscitate the peace process or bring any implementation of the late Saudi King Abdullah’s 2003 peace plan any closer to reality.
However, Sisi might.
First, the Egyptian leader is genuinely eager to advance the peace process both for the sake of the Palestinians and to undermine Palestinian support for ISIS in Sinai.
Second, making progress on behalf of the Palestinians would be popular with his public at home.
Third, Netanyahu and his hard-line Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman will make no concessions or deals with anyone they do not trust, such as Obama and Kerry. However, Sisi has consistently delivered security cooperation for them in the highest degree since taking power. He is a far more credible figure to suggest some practical and constructive progress.
Finally, in terms of their strategic assessments and philosophies of national security and foreign policy, Sisi and Netanyahu are cut from, if not the same, then similar cloth: They are tough and cautious patriots. They take the revolutionary dangers facing their two countries very seriously.
Neither leader is an isolationist. Both of them recognise the need for regional security cutting across the boundaries of faith, race and ideology.
And neither of them trust or truly respect the current US administration in Washington as far as they can throw it.
Make no mistake, Sisi never forgets for one second that Obama and his first secretary of State Hillary Clinton eagerly encouraged the toppling and shameful humiliation of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in the widespread “Arab spring” protests of 2011.
The Egyptian leader also remembers clearly that the Obama-Clinton policies opened the way for the mercifully brief period of rule under president Muhammad Morsi.
Sisi understands clearly that while aid from the United States continues, Clinton will have to do a lot of heavy lifting if she is elected president to assure him that she will not recklessly support extreme, nihilistic forces posing as democrats or religious idealists again.
Finally, regardless of what Obama and Clinton do or do not do in the coming months, the growing Israel-Egypt ties like the increasingly activist Saudi role in Yemen and Syria are signs of the increased willingness of America’s traditional allies in the region to carve out their own relationships and futures, filling the vacuum in leadership that Washington has so conspicuously vacated.