שר החוץ גבי אשכנזי גבי אשכנזי פגישה עם שר החוץ של מצרים סאמח שוכרי
Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi with his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukry in Cairo earlier this week
Photo: AP
Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi with his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukry in Cairo earlier this week

Egypt, Israel cooperate on Gaza but ‘normalization’ distant

Analysis: Expert on Arab-Israeli relations says that only when Egyptians are convinced that peace with its neighbor is good not only for them but also also for the Palestinians can bilateral ties improve beyond the current cold peace

Daniel Sonnenfeld/The Media Line |
Published: 06.04.21 , 19:14
Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi arrived in Cairo on Sunday to meet with Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukry, the first such official visit of an Israeli foreign minister to Egypt in over a decade.
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  • The visit came after the ministers exchanged several phone calls during the recent round of fighting between Israel and Gaza.
    8 צפייה בגלריה
    שר החוץ גבי אשכנזי גבי אשכנזי פגישה עם שר החוץ של מצרים סאמח שוכרי
    שר החוץ גבי אשכנזי גבי אשכנזי פגישה עם שר החוץ של מצרים סאמח שוכרי
    Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi with his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukry in Cairo earlier this week
    (Photo: AP)
    Egyptian officials worked closely with the two sides to facilitate a cease-fire that would return calm to the region and, indeed, a temporary cessation to the hostilities was reached through Egyptian mediation.
    Now, the countries are looking to achieve long-term quiet between Israel and Gaza’s rulers, Hamas.
    Ashkenazi tweeted before the start of the visit that “we will discuss establishing a permanent cease-fire with Hamas, a mechanism for providing humanitarian aid and the reconstruction of Gaza with a pivotal role played by the international community.”
    The minister also tweeted that the two “discussed enhancing economic and trade cooperation, including the renewal of direct flights between our countries.”
    Following the ministerial visit, Israel’s ambassador to Egypt Amira Oron told Ynet that there was a possibility of furthering the economic ties between the countries.
    “We want to be in a momentum of widening the scope of our relations with Egypt,” she said.
    Israel and Egypt do cooperate closely on matters of security.
    Dr. Haim Koren, former Israeli ambassador to Egypt and an expert on the Arab world who currently teaches at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, says that the current cooperation on security issues arises from Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s identification of Iran and Islamist terror groups as his country’s greatest threats.
    8 צפייה בגלריה
    שר החוץ גבי אשכנזי גבי אשכנזי פגישה עם שר החוץ של מצרים סאמח שוכרי
    שר החוץ גבי אשכנזי גבי אשכנזי פגישה עם שר החוץ של מצרים סאמח שוכרי
    Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and Israeli ambassador to Egypt Amira Oron during the minister's visit to Cairo earlier this week
    (Photo: AFP)
    Following this development in Egypt’s perspective on national security, “there arose, for the first time since the founding of the state [of Israel] a coalition which includes Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan – and Israel – that identifies the same actors as their most critical threats,” Koren says.
    According to Koren, this larger coalition is in itself a force pushing the neighboring countries closer.
    "The relationship between the countries since 2014 is excellent, they’re the best they’ve been since the Camp David Accords,” he says of the Egypt-Israel peace agreement signed in 1970.
    8 צפייה בגלריה
    Egyptian President  Saadat, U.S. President Carter and Israeli Prime Minister Begin at the signing of the Israeli Egyptian peace treaty
    Egyptian President  Saadat, U.S. President Carter and Israeli Prime Minister Begin at the signing of the Israeli Egyptian peace treaty
    Egyptian President Anwar Saadat, U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin at the signing of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty at the White House, March 1979
    (Photo: Getty Images)
    In addition to the security realm, Egypt and Israel have been drawing closer on energy matters.
    Together, they worked to launch the East Mediterranean Gas Forum, an international organization looking to ensure better dialogue and cooperation on the gas reserves discovered in the eastern Mediterranean.
    Notably, the Palestinian Authority also is a member. Israel is exporting natural gas to Egypt and hopes to increase its exports to the European market with the help of Egypt’s natural gas liquefying plants.
    8 צפייה בגלריה
    Israel's Tamar natural gas rig off the coast of Ashkelon
    Israel's Tamar natural gas rig off the coast of Ashkelon
    Israel's Tamar natural gas rig off the coast of Ashkelon
    (Photo: Reuters)
    Tourism is another area in which there has been talk recently that points to closer relations.
    Israel reportedly is considering lowering the travel warning level on the Sinai Peninsula, which attracts hundreds of thousands of Israelis annually. In addition, direct flights to the Egyptian vacation destination Sharm al-Sheikh also are on the table.
    Israel’s relations with Egypt are famously characterized as a cold peace. This long list of developments may be seen as an indication of a warming of ties which could bring the relationship of the two countries closer to that of the recently established relations between Israel and the UAE.
    8 צפייה בגלריה
    L-R) Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of the United Arab Emirates; and Dr. Abdullatif bin Rashid Alzayani, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Kingdom of Bahrain
    L-R) Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of the United Arab Emirates; and Dr. Abdullatif bin Rashid Alzayani, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Kingdom of Bahrain
    Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan at the signing of the Abraham Accords at the White House, Sept. 2020
    (Photo: EPA)
    Dr. Ofir Winter, an expert on Israel-Egypt relations at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, suggests that economic issues are a major motivator for Egypt.
    “I think that the economy is a central issue in Egypt and has been so for several years. The main challenges faced by the country at present are economic challenges,” he says.
    COVID-19 and its limitations did nothing to help, of course. Tourism is an important industry in Egypt, and Winter estimates that it decreased by 75% during the pandemic. The increased cooperation with Israel, he says, may help its southern neighbor economically.
    Winter adds that Cairo’s relations with Israel recently helped it score points with Washington.
    “Egypt very much wants to get closer to Biden … and it’s using its role as mediator between Israel and Hamas in Gaza to show that it is an asset to the U.S., that it is a force for stability and peace in the region,” he says.
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    Netanyahu and Sisi at the UN General Assembly in Sept. 2018
    Netanyahu and Sisi at the UN General Assembly in Sept. 2018
    Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi meeting at the UN General Assembly in New York, Sept. 2018
    (Photo: GPO)
    Winter concludes that there has been progress in the ties between the countries, and there is greater cooperation; however, the steps forward have been taken within the traditional framework of the Egypt-Israel relationship: security and some economic and tourist activity.
    At present, it is too early to talk of a thaw in relations that would bring Egypt and Israel closer to what was enabled by the Abraham Accords.
    Walid Kazziha, a professor of political science at The American University in Cairo and an expert on relations between the Arab world and Israel, notes that there have been moments in the past when the two countries have drawn closer.
    “However, these moments never lasted long enough to sustain a stable relationship. Very often, Israeli violent actions against the Palestinians under occupation intervened to jeopardize such efforts,” he says.
    8 צפייה בגלריה
    בני גנץ נפגש עם ראש המודיעין הכללי המצרי עבאס כאמל
    בני גנץ נפגש עם ראש המודיעין הכללי המצרי עבאס כאמל
    Defense Minister Benny Gantz meeting with the Egyptian Intelligence chief Abbas Kamel in Israel earlier this week
    (Photo: Elad Malka)
    Kazziha believes that the only path to warmer ties between Israel and Egypt is “when Egyptians, as a people, become more convinced that peace with Israel is not only good for them but also good for the Palestinians. If that happens Egyptians will be willing to receive Israelis with open arms, and they may even open their homes to them.”
    Without this, whatever progress is made in cooperation regarding security and financial matters is “by no means an indication of a warm peace materializing,” he said.
    Koren, however, says that Israel is a strategic partner that is greatly valued by the Egyptian government.
    An example, he says, is the fact that Israel repeatedly insists that Cairo act as mediator in the region, a position that entails great prestige, especially in the Middle East.
    8 צפייה בגלריה
    סינוואר וכאמל
    סינוואר וכאמל
    Egyptian intelligence chief Kamel Abbas, left, embraces Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar at a meeting in Gaza last month
    (Photo: TPS)
    This warm connection between governments is pushing forward changes outside the realm of security and energy, which may in time encourage a more significant change.
    The former ambassador notes that Sisi has included the peace accords between the countries in Egyptian schools’ curriculum.
    “Now, in a new museum, the national Egyptian museum, there is a section which revolves around Jewish life there,” he says.
    These are small changes and they have been made very carefully and slowly, but over time, they may have a large impact.

    Reprinted with permission from The Media Line
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