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Unlikely Partners: How Egypt Benefits from Ties With Israel

Egyptian leader al-Sisi is utilizing Cairo’s good relationship with Israel to maintain warm ties with Washington and benefit from newly discovered oil riches of Eastern Mediterranean.

Egypt, the most populous Arab nation, is an unlikely partner of Israel. But keeping on good terms with the Jewish republic since 1979 has been key for Egypt to secure crucial U.S. aid, preserve necessary security cooperation against terrorists and avoid incising Western criticism on its rights abuses.

The Egyptian leader, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who is set to be re-elected next week, is utilizing Cairo’s good relationship with Israel to maintain warm ties with Washington and benefit from newly discovered oil riches of Eastern Mediterranean.

Maintaining Peace

Egyptian policy makers have been working on maintaining peace with Tel Aviv since the 1973 Arab–Israeli War, where Cairo had learned that talks with Israel are easier conducted over negotiation tables than battlefields.

During a Knesset speech in 1977, former President of Egypt Anwar Sadat said there was a “psychological barrier” between Egyptians and Israelis “that comprised 70 percent of the problem” of weak relations with Tel Aviv.

Since his speech, and following the 1979 Camp David peace treaty between the two countries, Egypt has built upon its ability to use different foreign policy approaches.

Although the Egyptian society as a whole has concerns about Israel, the state remains objective in maintaining bilateral relations with the country (as it does with any other state), according to Dr. Saeed Elawindie, International Relations Expert at Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

Joel Beinin, the Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History and Professor of Middle East History at Stanford University, told The Globe Post that the current Egyptian regime has had good relations with Israel, especially on security matters.

“Saudi Arabia, UAE, Jordan, and Egypt have formed a [Sunni bloc] opposed to Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah. Israel has become increasingly an ally of that [bloc] although the Arab members of it are, to varying degrees, reluctant to acknowledge that,” he explained.

Egypt and Israel do share some views: the two countries have the same perception of Hamas, which was considered a resistance movement in the past but had later been recognized by both states as a terrorist organization.

Egypt and Israel have been sharing information about Hamas’ activities in a bid to protect the Sinai Peninsula crucial to Israel’s security.

According to a report published by the Atlantic Council, Egypt plays an important role in moderating unofficial discussions between Israeli and Hamas representatives. For example, Egypt’s mediation helped to secure exchange of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in 2011.

Dr. Elawindie said Egypt does not see Israel as one of its top enemies anymore.

“The relations are stagnant to this day due to flexible policies carried out by the new Egyptian regime of El Sisi who has changed perspectives on how to look at politics in the Middle East. Israel was the first classical enemy to Egypt, but today this has changed as it is no longer the primary enemy. Turkey is the primary enemy to Egypt nowadays,” Mr. Elawindie told The Globe Post.

Egypt’s participation in talks and negotiations on the Palestinian issue has served the country’s image domestically and throughout the Arab region, while also deepening its relations with Israel. Cairo is supporting a two-state solution, which President Sisi believes will bring an end to the conflict between Israel and Palestine. In a statement released by Egyptian Presidency, he said: “Egypt would spare no effort to support this solution.”

Civil Society and Normalization 

Although relations between the two states continue to flourish on diplomatic, security and economic levels, the Egyptian civil society has scoffed at any type of normalization that the Egyptian state is trying to work out with Israel.

Many Egyptians grew up with hate toward Israel, believing that it’s the sole enemy of the entire Middle East.

“Growing up in Egypt, I learned that my entire country had opinions about Israel, and none of them were positive. All we knew was that our country and theirs had fought bloody wars and that they were not like us,” Haisam Hassanein, a fellow at the Washington Institute, who moved to Israel to get educations, wrote in his report.

He added that he was only able to learn more about Israel through radio and television programs where Israelis were depicted as spies or thieves.

Tarek El Bardici, an Egyptian expert in politics and international relations, told The Globe Post that the Egyptian society has never agreed to normalize relations with Israel.

“However, the state is obliged to [normalize them] due to the role of continuing international relations. Or else what is the point of having a peace treaty with Israel?” he asked.

Mr. El Bardici noted that while the general public hasn’t taken many visible steps against normalization, it was done by intellectuals and Egyptian syndicates regulating artistic matters, including films and music. These syndicates have been given the right to ban any Zionist content, an action that can also be carried out by the Egyptian Press Syndicate. On multiple occasions, Egyptian actors have been banned from appearing in Israeli movies.

Role of the United States

Egypt can succeed on several fronts by boosting its relations with Israel: Cairo sees stable relations with Tel Aviv as a gateway to American policy makers, according to a report released by the Washington Institute.

“The U.S. wants a stable Egyptian-Israeli relationship and would also prefer that the Egyptian regime reduce its human rights violations. In the past, the Zionist lobby has sometimes been mobilized on behalf of Egypt on issues like this. Sisi may believe it can play this role in the future,” Mr. Beinin pointed out.

“But there is always the possibility that Congress will be offended by the high level of Egypt’s human rights violations and either vote down or exert pressure on the administration to cut aid to Egypt,” he added.

Some Egyptian political experts, including Mr. Elawindie, believe, however, that Egyptian-American relations are unsteady despite Egypt’s attempts to secure the Sinai Peninsula and hence help with maintaining Israeli security, one of U.S. concerns in the MENA region.

“The Egyptian relations with Washington are incomparable to that between Cairo and Tel Aviv, which are more stable. There are a lot of question marks [when it comes to] American policies regarding the Middle East and increasing concerns about Trump’s decisions that does not consider Egypt or the Middle East affairs; that includes not baring the responsibility of announcing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel,” Mr. Elawindie elaborated.

Egypt currently enjoys warm relations with Washington: Presidents Donald J. Trump and Sisi have managed to improve ties that were strained under former U.S. leader Barack Obama. Unlike Mr. Trump, Mr. Obama was constantly critical of Egypt’s human rights record and the Egyptian army’s intervention in settling mass conflicts in Egypt in 2013.

Despite better relations, Egypt has criticized Mr. Trump’s decision to declare Jerusalem the capital of Israel and has warned against its consequences in a released statement.

“Most observers thought that Trump’s decision was an unnecessary provocation, but after an initial spurt of protests, the announcement seems to have been absorbed. That doesn’t mean everything is fine. Jerusalem can always become a flashpoint overnight,” Mr. Beinin noted.

Based on reports, however, the Trump administration will be relying on Egypt as a key component to achieve peace and stability in the Middle East.

Impact of Relations on Arab World

Current relations between Egypt and Israel are impacting Middle East peace negotiations, where Cairo has been relying on Tel Aviv as an important actor ensuring the region’s stability.

“When Egypt signed the Camp David peace treaty with Israel, all Arab countries have expressed aggressive reaction by cutting ties with Egypt. But later, they discovered that [President] Sadat had a certain vision featured in the treaty, knowing that it would ensure stability. Arab countries have later followed Egypt’s lead in partnering with Israel in various fields,” Mr. El Bardici pointed out.

A relationship between Israel and the so-called “Sunni bloc,” which includes Saudi Arabia, UAE, Jordan, and Egypt, has been serving countries’ self-interests and the need to confront the Iranian threat.

“In my view, that threat is very much exaggerated. In the long run, the Saudis and Iran could very well have compatible mutual interests in the Gulf. The policy of the Saudi king Muhammad Bin Salman in sharpening the conflict with Iran (especially in Yemen) is not succeeding, thus the situation is not stable, and it’s unclear whether Israel will be any kind of partner in the Arab world in the long run,” Mr. Beinin said.

He argued, however, that even though Israel is not acting as any type of partner to the region at the moment, it is the strongest military power in the region, and no combination of Arab states can challenge it militarily.

“It is clear that for some years most of the Arab states would have preferred a stable peace with Israel; however the Palestinian issue remains an obstacle, even though no Arab country is now (or has been for decades) willing to sacrifice anything for the sake of achieving Palestinian rights,” Mr. Beinin added.

Egypt to Become Regional Gas Hub 

President Sisi has been eager to protect Egypt’s security interests and economic prospects. Thus, he has been seizing financial opportunities involving many countries, including Israel.

Both Cairo and Tel Aviv have shown interest in cooperating in many fields, including energy, agriculture, irrigation, and tourism. According to the Atlantic Council report, Egyptian-Israeli relations may continue to prosper as long as the Sinai Peninsula is stable and regional dynamics are clear.

“Egyptian cooperation with Israel in the operations of Sinai is a certain degree of normalization and the recently signed energy deals in which Egypt that constitutes importing gas from Israel is also a type of normalization by state, however, makes Egypt a strategic ally in the region,” Mr. Elawindie said.

Cairo has signed a $15 billion agreement with Israeli Noble Energy Inc. and Delek Drilling-LP to export Israel’s gas to Egypt. The agreement has paved the way for Israel to become an energy exporter, according to an article by Bloomberg.

“Egypt is one of the lucky countries to own many gas reserves, unlike Korea or Japan. The new energy agreements don’t revolve around the concepts of exporting, importing or producing but rather about utilization efficiency. We have to ask ourselves, is Egypt making use of the available energy production? Or do we usually import gas to cover only domestic use and ignore the needs of the gas market?” former Egyptian Minister of Petroleum Osama Kamel told The Globe Post.

The energy deals will further boost economic relations between countries and promote diverse collaborations other than security.

“Egypt has economic development goals of 3 to 8 percent in annual growth, which will be achieved through industrialization that requires electricity and field stock. With these rates we need at least 8 to 9 billion cubic meters of gas per day thus gas imports is the only solution,” Mr. Kamel noted.

He also pointed out other benefits stemming from the energy deals with Israel, including receiving gas at lower prices.

“It is better to import gas through pipe lines that are cheaper than LNG. We are among the rare countries that has a pipe line in Damietta that is non-operational yet very suitable for transferring gas from Israel to Egypt,” Mr. Kamel said.

Other experts mentioned that the agreements would bolster strategic ties.

“I believe that the energy deals with Israel were a result of Turkey becoming a main enemy to Egypt in the Mediterranean sea, and in return, Egypt is allying with Israel on mega projects and joint ventures which was expected to happen a long time ago,” Mr. Elawindie said.

President Sisi called the recent energy deals with Israel a milestone, saying in a televised speech that “Egypt has scored a goal” by signing the agreement which will have many advantages for Cairo.

Mr. Kamel said there is an increased interest from private companies to partner with Israel on energy deals to build petrochemical plants and electricity stations, among other projects. He noted that Egypt could become a regional gas hub by making good use of its gas infrastructure and integrating all factions involved in the industry into cooperative efforts.

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