Lessons from the lukewarm peace of Israel and Egypt
On March 9, Israeli Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen met his Egyptian counterpart Nasser Fahmi in the resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh, located at the southern end of the Sinai Peninsula.
At first glance, nothing in this meeting was meaningful – security cooperation is the foundation of Israeli-Egyptian relations.
However, what made headlines in Israel was the fact that Cohen was allegedly accompanied by a large delegation of Israeli businessmen. Could the recently signed normalization agreements with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco warm the “cold peace” between Israel and Egypt?
Perhaps, because it is difficult to argue that there has never been a better period in Israeli-Egyptian relations.
Since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi came to power in 2013, security cooperation between Jerusalem and Cairo has reached unprecedented levels. The two countries share common goals: to contain Iranian regional influence, fight Islamic radicalism and maintain peace in the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip. Their 170-mile border – for decades a lawless border and a hotbed for illicit trafficking and terrorist activity – is now calm. Understanding the need for flexibility in the Middle East of the post-2011 Arab Spring, Israel routinely allows Egyptian forces to enter the demilitarized zones of Sinai in numbers that exceed what was originally allowed in the 1979 peace treaty. has similar reports from Egypt authorizing cross-border operations by the Israel Defense Forces.
Nevertheless, security coordination has always been the epicenter of the relationship. So while the depth of cooperation between Israeli and Egyptian forces is commendable, where is the relationship evolving?
Few examples are more demonstrative of this point than the Israeli-Egyptian energy cooperation. In the early 2010s, when offshore hydrocarbons were discovered in the eastern Mediterranean, it was not assumed that Jerusalem and Cairo were going to team up. For years Egypt supplied Israel with natural gas, but the collapse of their deal in 2012 resulted in an unpleasant international arbitration process. In 2015, the International Chamber of Commerce ordered Egypt to pay $ 1.8 billion in compensation to the Israel Electric Corporation.
It could have been the death knell for future Israeli-Egyptian energy cooperation, but the two governments agreed that trade and geopolitical gains outweighed what Cairo owed. Israel’s natural gas reserves were trapped without an export route, and Egypt’s dormant liquid natural gas facilities at Idku and Damietta were an ideal destination. The Eastern Mediterranean had become a fertile ground for maritime conflicts – in particular with Turkey – and the intervention of great powers, requiring more teamwork between friendly states. In 2018, an agreement to deliver Israeli gas to Egypt was signed to the tune of $ 15 billion. Then, a few months later, the parties reached a settlement of $ 500 million on their old dispute.
Today, Israel’s nascent energy partnership with Egypt is the foundation of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (GEF), an international organization committed to advancing energy development and cooperation opportunities among states of the the eastern Mediterranean. Based in Cairo and comprising Cyprus, France, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, Egypt sees EMGF as a way to establish itself as a regional gas hub, which would create jobs, improve Egypt’s energy security and strengthen its geostrategic position. For Israel, joining a forum with three Arab actors and four European actors is no easy task.
Unsurprisingly, Egyptian Oil Minister Tarek El Molla and Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz are among the best known and most traveled politicians in the Eastern Mediterranean. At the end of February 2021, El Molla was the Egyptian prime minister to visit Israel in the past five years. Their personal relationship is considered one of the pillars of bilateral relations.
Security and energy cooperation has also borne fruit in diplomacy. After repeatedly downgrading diplomatic relations during various difficult times in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Egypt has maintained its Ambassador in Tel Aviv since 2008. Israel’s new Ambassador to Egypt, Amira Oron, is fluent in Israel. Arabic and has a personal connection to Egypt’s vibrant Jewish past. . In 2018, Egypt asked Israel to settle its dispute with Ethiopia over the Ethiopian Renaissance Grand Dam. These efforts failed but offered Israel an opportunity to offer technology to help alleviate Egypt’s water security concerns once the dam was completed.
There are other examples of improving Israeli-Egyptian relations. For years, the route between Tel Aviv and Cairo was operated by Air Sinai – a single-plane airline that did not even carry the Egyptian flag – and not by EgyptAir. However, in March 2021 it was announced that EgyptAir would follow the route under its name and triple the number of daily flights. Egypt also restored several Jewish sites in Cairo and Alexandria. The move reflects a trend among several Middle Eastern regimes that have attempted to change perceptions of their attitudes towards Jews in a bid to woo Washington. This message is not lost on the Israelis. As anecdotal as these stories are, together they reflect a larger change unfolding at the official level.
Compared to his predecessors, President Sisi’s stance towards Israel is pioneering. However, there are also clear limits to Israeli-Egyptian growth.
Egyptian public opinion has always opposed normalization with Israel, and this position is unlikely to change until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved. Even civilians, like Egyptian actor Mohamed Ramadan, are lambasted by the press if they are seen socializing with Israelis. As a result, high-profile meetings with Israeli officials – like the one with Cohen’s business delegation in March – continue to be censored for fear of public retaliation. These contradictions are not exclusively Egyptian. According to reports, the Israeli delegation was organized without prior consultation with the Minister of Economy and Trade and Ambassador Oron.
That shouldn’t stop Israeli and Egyptian officials from thinking creatively about the future of their relationship.
Israel and Egypt should invest more in maritime cooperation. In 2021 alone, a leak aboard a ship smuggling Iranian oil to Syria polluted Israel’s coast with tar, and the Ever Given – a huge container ship – was stranded on the Suez Canal, supporting international trade traffic for days or even weeks. . While neither of the two incidents was a bilateral issue per se, they both highlighted areas where better communication – on maritime traffic surveillance, environmental protection and naval safety – could bring benefits. its fruits.
For the foreseeable future, Israel and Egypt will continue their security coordination on issues relating to Hamas – the Islamist movement within Palestinian politics – and the Gaza Strip. But it should also include efforts to change the economic circumstances that allow Hamas to take power. Egypt’s recent decision to help develop the Gaza Marine natural gas field is exactly the kind of project that could significantly improve the living conditions of Palestinians. Another area worth revisiting is the expansion of the qualifying industrial zones program first introduced by the US Congress during the Oslo peace process.
Across the region, there is a growing demand for technology that will increase human security and food security. Egypt should find ways to integrate Israeli technology into the economy in order to improve the quality and quantity of its annual harvest. Investing in desalination technology would increase public access to safe drinking water. In a country that has revolted more than once over the price of bread, the diversification of Egyptian cooperation with Israel could mean the difference between stability and chaos.
Promoting Israeli-Palestinian peace is not among today’s priorities. Despite years of mediation between rival Palestinian factions, Egypt seems quite disinterested in the upcoming elections. Yet Jerusalem and Cairo will never be able to completely dissociate their relationship from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and must therefore continue to work together to prevent future rounds of violence and the deterioration of the status quo. A disruption of this delicate balance – for example, renewed Israeli interest in annexing parts of the West Bank – could stymie the progress of the past six years.
Normalization has demonstrated the fluid nature of Israel’s relations with the Arab states, however, methods that work with one country should not be expected to work everywhere. In the case of Egypt, the strategy is clear: keep expectations low and focus on steady progress over headlines. This may be an unsatisfactory answer for some, but it is likely to produce the greatest benefits.
Gabriel Mitchell is Director of External Relations at the Israel Institute for Regional Foreign Policy (Mitvim) and a doctoral candidate at Virginia Tech University. Follow him on Twitter: @GabiAMitchell.