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It’s time for Egypt and Israel to finally warm up this cold peace

The relationship has been limited for far too long to security ties and top-level contact while Cairo continues to demonize Israelis
A man in Cairo holds a phone showing a picture of Egyptian singer Mohamed Ramadan posted by the official Facebook page of the State of Israel in Arabic (linked to the Foreign Ministry) depicting Ramadan (C) hugging Israeli singer Omer Adam (L) on a Dubai rooftop, November 22, 2020. (Khaled DESOUKI / AFP)
A man in Cairo holds a phone showing a picture of Egyptian singer Mohamed Ramadan posted by the official Facebook page of the State of Israel in Arabic (linked to the Foreign Ministry) depicting Ramadan (C) hugging Israeli singer Omer Adam (L) on a Dubai rooftop, November 22, 2020. (Khaled DESOUKI / AFP)

Israel’s broad policy towards Egypt, which is mainly led by the security establishment in Israel, is characterized by security-related and personal proximity between the heads of states, but this does not permeate down into the general population which, decades after the last war between the states and the ensuing peace agreements, still regard Israel as an enemy.

Thus, a situation has been created, whereby despite a deep rapprochement between Israel and its Egypt on the security level, this remains the property of several senior officials who knowingly choose not to share this closer approach with the public. Despite the peace agreement between the states, there is hardly any sign of normalization between the states and any such signs that might have existed in the past have been fading over the years.

Relations between the states are currently characterized by highly fortified and small embassies, almost a negligible level of tourism and limited-impact economic agreements, restricted aviation cooperation, without any cultural cooperation, and rare (public) meetings between the leaders of the countries. There is minimal economic cooperation, but it does not fully realize the existing potential of the relationship.

Above all, Egypt’s authorities consciously discourage its citizens from tightening relations with “civil society” in Israel and view anyone in their country ready to do so as a spy. At the same time, not only has the security cooperation remained undamaged but it is sometimes intensified in accordance with the security threats posed to these countries.

The reasons Egypt tends to avoid developing closer relations with the State of Israel are well known – concern about the response of the local population to any effort to tighten these relations, along with a genuine desire to preserve the “Israeli enemy” in order to both incite and divert pockets of government resistance in Israel’s direction; a security-related justification for the continued armament efforts of these armies, and fears that without resolving the Palestinian issue, any event in the West Bank could harm them, and they should thus at least publicly present dogmatic approach regarding Israel.

However, Israel seems comfortable playing this game. As far as Israel is concerned, these security-related ties appear to be a necessity, while all other civilian issues are purely “nice to haves”, and if the prime minister or senior security establishment officials can pick up a phone or meet (without publicity) with their counterparts, then that will do nicely.

It seems that the current perception in Israel is that rulers in Egypt do not really have the ability and/or the desire to move forward on this issue, and that such moves might even jeopardize the rulers in these countries.

At the same time, this policy confirms to Egyptian leaders that there is no need to focus on normalization issues and that Israel will deliver the goods as far as security is concerned anyway, as their staying in power serves its interests. This relationship is characterized more by “non-aggression” than actual peace agreements between the states.

Therefore, it is not surprising that when a profound change in the regime occurred in Egypt (following the overthrow of Mubarak and the election of Morsi), many questions were raised in Israel regarding the future of the peace agreement with Egypt. Although this peace was not compromised, the mere concern indicated that more than Israel believed it had peace with Egypt, it assumed it had peace with Mubarak and Egypt’s top military officers alone.

A real change to the future of Israel-Egypt normalization may lie with the new normalization agreements between Israel and UAE and Bahrain. It seems that those countries would like to move forward with normalization with Israel including embassies and tourists, arrangements sorely lacking in current Israel-Egypt relations.

Egypt is now in a tight spot. As the relationship between Israel and the Gulf states becomes tighter, Egypt is forced to radicalize its responses to any normalization with Israel, and sharpen the Egyptian public’s fundamental enmity regarding Israel. On the other hand, in public, Egypt cannot speak out against the Gulf states and must support them at least publicly, given its economic dependence on these countries.

Israel, which is in a different position in the Middle East after the Abraham Agreements, must exploit its new status and have a frank conversation with Cairo on their relations. Israel even needs to consider conditioning its security assistance to Egypt on a demand that Egypt take a series of actions that will promote normalization and lead to a tightening of relations between the countries in the future.

In addition, Israel needs to work with the new Administration in the United States to force Egypt to change its policy towards normalization with Israel. Israel cannot accept any hostilities from the Egyptian side and must take drastic actions against it, whether it is films simulating damage to Israeli navy ships or actions against personalities who are willing to cooperate with Israel. Israel’s reluctance to do so is more likely to damage the relationship between the countries than to assist it.

The peace between the two countries will endure only if the populations from both sides see the value in it. In the current situation between the countries, any change in Egyptian leadership can shake the foundation of the agreement. Strong public support in Egypt to the agreement, can prevent that from happening.

About the Author
23+ years of experience in 8200, IDI Research Division and the Israeli Embassy in the US. Retired from the Israel Defense Forces Senior fellow at the Abba Eban institute.
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