In the Middle East, Egypt-Israel ties stand out
It is arguably true that the Middle East has never, in modern times, been so weak and inviting a target for foreign intervention. In the last generation, foreign powers led by or allied to Washington have occupied four Arab capitals.
On the other side of the great power divide, Russian, Turkish and Iranian forces play an outsized role in the destiny of millions across the Fertile Crescent. The system of states established after the dissolution of the Ottoman empire — from Iraq to Syria, Libya and Yemen — have been destabilised as never before. In the best of worlds, the labour of generations will be required to re-establish the sovereign power of states enveloped by crisis and foreign occupation.
The intimate relationship between Egypt and Israel stands as a critical exception to this trend of dissolution and implosion.
At the heart of the Middle East, there are two strong states, former enemies now reconciled for almost half a century. Each has kept the overweening intervention of foreign states at bay. The intersecting strategic interests linking Egypt and Israel have produced a powerful working alliance that stands all but alone in an otherwise tumultuous region whose weaknesses continue to tempt foreign intervention.
Who could have imagined such a thing? Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt established the gold standard declared at Khartoum — “no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it” — a policy established after the Arab failure to prevent the founding of Israel.
Egypt, which led to the adoption and pursuit of this policy, became the leading advocate of its repudiation. After the military victory in October 1973, Egypt, under the direction of Anwar Sadat, took the first critical steps in fashioning a relationship that today is stronger than ever before.
For many years after the Sadat visit to Jerusalem in November 1977, Washington was an indispensable mediator between the former enemies. Indeed, Sadat’s interest in forging a close relationship with Washington was the driving factor in Egypt’s historic rapprochement with Israel, inaugurated in the signing of a peace treaty in March 1982 and Israel’s withdrawal from its conquests in Sinai.
Sadat’s determination to establish a close relationship with Washington has been realised but whatever hopes for the Palestinians Sadat anticipated would result from his decision to reconcile with Washington and Jerusalem, Egypt failed to leverage its closer ties to end occupation or to create a Palestinian state.
Israel’s pact with Egypt has stood the test of time, surviving Israel’s invasion(s) of Lebanon, its serial assaults on Gaza, the defeat of Palestinian rebellions in 1988 and 2002, Hosni Mubarak’s fall and the election of Muhammad Morsi and his deposition by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
Ties with Washington remain critical to both Sisi and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. While each has a good relationship with the mercurial American president, bilateral relations independent of the Washington at security and intelligence levels are closer than ever. Indeed, the growing bonds directly linking Israel and Egypt constitute the vibrant core of their relationship.
In contrast to Washington, Israel and Egypt share the view that Syrian President Bashar Assad and the Russians have won the struggle for Syria. Each for its own reasons is locked in an antipathetic struggle with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Both oppose the Turkish president’s embrace of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Palestinian territories and view Ankara as a hostile force in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Both are wary of Hamas and determined to restrict trade and the operation of their respective borders with the impoverished enclave. Nevertheless, Netanyahu and Sisi agree that Hamas under the leadership of Yahya Sinwar — and not Fatah under the leadership of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas — is the Palestinian address in Gaza.
Cooperation in the battle against a local insurgency in Sinai led by the Islamic State (ISIS) is at the heart of security and intelligence cooperation that defines the relationship.
Israel and Egypt agreed to modify the application of the 1982 treaty restrictions on Egypt’s military deployment in Sinai to facilitate Cairo’s war. Israeli drones, helicopter gunships and fighter jets have operated in Egyptian skies against ISIS in Sinai.
Sisi’s controversial decision to return the islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi control was made possible by a commitment to Israel that Riyadh would respect the security and freedom of navigation terms of the 1982 treaty.
In a development that Nasser could not imagine, energy security and supply in the Eastern Mediterranean dominate growing ties. Both countries are building broad and expanding economic relationships based on exploiting and transporting their respective maritime reserves. Israel has resumed supply of natural gas to Egypt for Cairo’s domestic use and re-export, making a key contribution to Egypt’s campaign to establish itself as a hub for energy supply throughout the Mediterranean.
This cooperative effort has established the basis for an expanding and dynamic energy and security dialogue, including Israel, Egypt, Cyprus and Greece. This entirely new 21st-century agenda promises to define future ties between Israel and Egypt, leaving their unfinished business of the 20th century, foremost Palestine, as an artefact of history.