Signs of closer Egypt-Israel ties in a changing region

The two capitals are reportedly coordinating on several issues, including security in Sinai and relations with the Palestinian Hamas movement, which rules the Gaza Strip.
Sunday 05/05/2019
New turn. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (C-R) meets with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (C-L) on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, last September. (Egyptian Presidency)
New turn. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (C-R) meets with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (C-L) on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, last September. (Egyptian Presidency)

CAIRO - A reference by Avichay Adraee, the head of the Israeli military Arab media division, about thousands of Egyptian Christian Copts marking Holy Saturday in Israel spoke volumes of the strength of relations between Egypt and Israel.

“We welcome the thousands of Egyptian Copts who arrived in Israel to participate in the Holy Saturday mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem today,” Adraee, an Israeli Defence Forces lieutenant-colonel, wrote on Twitter April 27.

He also posted a photo of a pack of frozen Egyptian vegetables, saying it was given him by an Egyptian friend and that the vegetables were sold at Israeli supermarkets.

The businessman who owns the company that packs the vegetables denied that the company’s produce had been exported to Israel. There were discussions on whether the Egyptian Christian Copts’ pilgrimage to Jerusalem would benefit the Jewish state and not the Palestinians of Jerusalem.

Those references, however, are only a sliver of the scope of cooperation between Cairo and Tel Aviv, analysts said.

“Relations between the two capitals have been growing steadily and on all fronts,” said Samir Ghattas, an Egyptian MP and an Israeli affairs specialist. “The current administration in Egypt is fully aware that Israel is a country with which Egypt had signed a peace treaty.”

Egypt, in 1979, became the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel after the Egyptian Army liberated Sinai from Israeli occupation. This peace was cold for decades because of public opposition to normalisation of relations with Israel.

Egypt celebrated the anniversary of Sinai’s liberation on April 25 but it seems to have already thrown off the legacy of hostility with Israel.

Relations between Cairo and Tel Aviv have taken a new turn. The two capitals are reportedly coordinating on several issues, including security in Sinai and relations with the Palestinian Hamas movement, which rules the Gaza Strip.

Egypt is coordinating with Israel in its fight against a branch of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Sinai, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said.

In January, Sisi told CBS News that this coordination was the “closest” between the two countries. He said that Egyptian fighter jets chasing ISIS fighters in Sinai sometimes crossed into Israeli airspace, which required coordination with Tel Aviv.

Sisi publicly has met with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu twice since becoming president in mid-2014.

Egypt, which has strong relations with Hamas, also mediates between the Gaza-ruling movement and Tel Aviv. Egyptian intelligence officials averted several flare-ups of Hamas-Israel fighting in recent years, which indicates the leverage Egypt enjoys in Gaza and in Tel Aviv.

Sisi’s administration apparently believes that peace between the Palestinians and Israel, on the one hand, and between Israel and other Arabs, on the other, is possible and that this peace can solve many problems in the region, including rampant terrorism and extremism, analysts said.

“Egypt knows what peace means,” Ghattas said. “The peace treaty with Israel succeeded in solving many of the pending issues between the two countries.”

Political and security coordination between the two countries is accompanied by growth in economic cooperation.

In February 2018, US-based Noble Energy and Israeli Delek Drilling announced $15 billion worth of deals to sell natural gas from Israel’s Leviathan and Tamar fields to Egypt over ten years. Commenting on the deals, Sisi said his country scored a goal.

Egypt, which aspires to become a regional energy hub, said it would use gas from other regional producers for liquefaction and re-export the gas.

Israel is also a member of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, an Egyptian mechanism for strengthening cooperation between gas producers and consumers in the region.

Tens of thousands of Israeli tourists cross the border into Egypt each year to spend vacations in Taba and Sharm el-Sheikh.

In a way, relations between Cairo and Tel Aviv are inseparable from relations between Cairo and Washington. Egypt, which faced American wrath following the army-backed popular uprising against Islamist President Muhammad Morsi in 2013, is warming its ties with Washington and Israel is reportedly at the centre of this.

Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronot recently reported that Netanyahu had apparently convinced US President Donald Trump that Sisi should be the one leader representing the Arab side in Trump’s yet-to-be-announced peace plan between Israel and the Palestinians, widely known as “Deal of the Century.”

The expected deal, analysts in Egypt said, could allow closer cooperation with Israel, especially if it restores Palestinians’ rights.

“The whole thing depends on the content of the awaited initiative,” said Emad Gad, deputy director of Egyptian think-tank Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. “Agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis can open the door for common issues, even as differences can persist.”

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