Egypt needs an Israeli-Palestinian peace push

Jerusalem is mistaken to believe it can build ties with Cairo without trying to make peace with the Palestinians

Four days before Israeli elections, regional leaders met with US secretary of state John Kerry in the Egyptian resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh to discuss the Palestinian situation and Israeli-Palestinian peace.

King Abdullah II of Jordan, Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, and Kerry were all there to attend a major Egyptian investment summit, hosted by Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. On the sidelines of the conference, however, the four men considered how to stabilize the Palestinian economy and plotted moving the peace process forward with the next Israeli government.

The electoral victory of Likud, and the continuation of Benjamin Netanyahu’s premiership, puts a damper on any peace plans—especially following the Israeli leader’s campaign promise to block the emergence of a Palestinian state.

On numerous occasions, the last Israeli government spoke of its quiet cooperation with Egypt and other Arab states on issues of mutual interest: from countering salafi-jihadism to keeping Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

Israeli leaders pointed out that all this was happening despite a stalemate in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and contended that such under-the-table relations can thrive without efforts to solve the Palestinian issue. From the Israeli perspective, the Palestinians are simply no longer a regional priority.

A recent visit to Cairo suggests Egyptian officials see things differently. Egypt needs Israel’s next government to move forward on the peace process; and President el-Sisi is open to creative ways to achieve the two-state solution.

Egyptian-Israeli security cooperation is closer than it has ever been as the two neighbors grapple with threats from jihadis in the Sinai Peninsula and concerns about the Gaza Strip’s Hamas rulers. Mutual interests on their shared border mean little is likely to change in security ties, but no movement on the peace process will increase tensions on diplomatic fronts and widen disagreements even where interests overlap: such as Gaza.

Egypt’s rhetorical demands for Palestinian rights build from its historical, ethnic, and religious ties to the Palestinian people and the disputed land — especially Jerusalem. However, as one Egyptian official noted, peace between Israel and the Palestinians is also in Egypt’s self-interest for internal and regional stability.

President el-Sisi previously linked the Palestinian conflict to radicalism in the Middle East. The Egyptian official was more direct: Egypt’s enemies, from Iran to extremist groups, use the Palestinian issue to undermine Egypt by attacking its Peace Treaty and security cooperation with Israel.

Interesting in the current context is that Egypt’s concern about the next Israeli-Palestinian flare-up centers on the Palestinian Authority-controlled West Bank and on Jerusalem: not on Gaza, which borders Egypt

The humanitarian situation in Gaza is terrible, but Egyptian officials have limited concern about public backlash for its policies toward the Strip. For the most part, this stems from the negative image Egyptians have of Hamas: an outgrowth of the group’s relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian government’s insistence on Hamas involvement in attacks in the Sinai Peninsula and Egypt’s mainland.

This shows that, as much as Egyptian officials describe the need to consider public opinion in its relations with Israel, public opinion can be shaped by the government and a sympathetic media.

If Egypt is serious about needing a peace push, its government has a number of inducements to encourage the next Israeli government to move forward.

Despite close ties, el-Sisi has not returned Egypt’s ambassador to Tel Aviv. The diplomat was recalled during the 2012 Gaza conflict, and he will continue to work from Cairo until there is progress on the peace process. Because there is value to Israel in the appearance of normal relations with any of its neighbors, the Egyptian government could publicly link its ambassador’s return with the resumption of talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

At the conclusion of talks, or to get past major hurdles in the process, Egypt also holds a major trump card: Ouda Tarabin. The Bedouin citizen of Israel is nearing the end of a 15-year Egyptian sentence for spying for Israel — a charge Israel and he deny, and one he never had the opportunity to challenge in court. Israel’s efforts to free its citizens imprisoned and captured abroad are well known; and Tarabin’s release is a major priority for Israel in its bilateral relations with Egypt. Deporting Tarabin could induce difficult concessions from Israel; but his value is time-limited, as he completes his sentence later this year.

Despite a number of other priorities and pressing matters, it is clear that el-Sisi is interested in a peace push. In October 2014 remarks to a gathering of Gaza donors, the Egyptian president delivered a message meant for the Israeli people: “It is high time to end conflict without delay and to give others their rights to establish justice so that prosperity and security could be achieved.”

The vision put forward by el-Sisi is a settlement based on the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which is considered a non-starter for many Israelis. El-Sisi speaks of 1967 lines, a shared Jerusalem, and a just settlement to the Palestinian refugee issue. Netanyahu and his prospective coalition partners reject all of the API’s concessions.

For Cairo, then, the next Israeli government will not be a “serious partner” in achieving peace. The Egyptian government is likely to focus its efforts on reaching intra-Palestinian reconciliation, strengthening the Palestinian Authority, and keeping the Israeli-Palestinian conflict quiet.

From Egypt’s perspective, though, even when the situation is quiet the possibility of an escalation puts it in a delicate position. Above all, Egyptian president el-Sisi wants internal and regional stability. As he sees it, the stability he demands cannot be achieved as long as the Palestinian problem remains.

About the Author
Zack Gold is a Visiting Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies.
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