Edition 33 Volume 7 - August 27, 2024

Egypt-Israel: upgrading strategic relations?

Interests aligning -   Ashraf Khalil

It's becoming harder for Cairo to hide the fact that its foreign policy interests are more in line with Tel Aviv than ever.

Overcoming the constraints -   James A. Larocco

Egypt is not even a priority to the Israel Defense Forces.

Egypt wants to remain a regional player - an interview with   Mustafa al-Sawwaf

The tense relations between the Egyptian leadership and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt are reflected in relations between Egypt and Gaza.

The elusive alliance -   Ephraim Sneh

The immediate order of the day is to formulate a shared strategy for ending Hamas rule in Gaza.

Interests aligning
 Ashraf Khalil

The Israelis like to call it the "cold peace". The Egyptians would rather not call it anything at all because that would admit there's actually something there to name.

For years the exact extent of political and economic cooperation between the two neighbors has been a subject of hot-button speculation and the occasional press campaign in Cairo. The government of President Hosni Mubarak, whose predecessor Anwar Sadat signed the 1978 Camp David accords, generally tries to keep the specifics of the two countries' relationship low-key, only admitting it when things become too obvious to deny.

"An Israeli is not the type of person that you want all your neighbors to know you're dating," chuckled Menachim Klein, a former Israeli negotiator and Bar-Ilan University political science professor.

Several years ago, a former agriculture minister fended off a prolonged opposition media campaign calling him a secret normalizer for his ministry's working relationship with its Israeli counterpart. Popular reaction was straight out of the movie Casablanca: people were shocked to discover something that most regional observers already saw as patently obvious. More recently, the local press has accused the government of selling natural gas to Israel for sweetheart prices.

Egyptians in general do know that there are extensive economic and agricultural ties with Israel, but prefer not to think too hard about it. (A personal example: when I first moved to Jerusalem in February 2024 as a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, my Egyptian relatives were genuinely curious as to what route I used to visit Cairo. They honestly had no idea that there are multiple EgyptAir and El Al flights every week between Cairo and Tel Aviv.)

But now, something seems to be changing in the usual don't ask/don't tell nature of the Egyptian-Israeli partnership. It's becoming harder for Cairo to hide the fact that its foreign policy interests are more in line with Tel Aviv than ever. The main source of common ground is a mutual desire to contain Iran's regional and nuclear ambitions. Both governments have arrived at this place via different routes. Israel fears an Iranian nuclear capability will challenge its own (nominally secret) nuclear arsenal and open the door to a devastating attack on the Jewish state. Egypt doesn't fear Iran militarily, but dreads the gradual expansion of revolutionary Shi'ite ideology into the Sunni sphere.

Egypt's own bilateral relations with Tehran are fraught with tension--partially stemming from Iran's insistence on glorifying Sadat's assassins. "The way Iran acts has actually pulled (Egypt and Israel) closer together," said Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born Israeli political analyst.

This common interest has already produced some interesting public displays of cooperation. Earlier this summer, an Israeli submarine passed through the Suez Canal from the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea, touching off a weeklong media firestorm in Egypt. Israeli warships have traversed the canal for years, but this was the first submarine passage. The hype surrounding the event was only intensified by the fact that no one seems to know for sure the exact capabilities of the German-made Dolphin class sub.

Egyptian officials were generally tight-lipped, saying that the two countries have a peace treaty and the canal is open for all nations. But Israeli media openly declared the passage a coordinated message aimed directly at Tehran. "They want Iran to realize that nothing is impossible," Javedanfar said. Does that include a scenario where Egypt actively assists an Israeli preemptive strike on Iran? Nobody is sure and Javedanfar says that is exactly how both governments want it.

The submarine passage was far more than a symbolic show of cooperation. Usage of the Suez Canal would enable the Israeli navy to quickly get in position for a naval strike or blockade against Iranian ports. Without the canal, Israeli ships would have to make a weeks-long voyage around Africa in order to attack Iranian shores.

Emad Gad, an expert on Israeli policy with Cairo-based Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, warns not to read too much into the submarine incident. "There may be some Egyptian cooperation," with Israel, he says. "But it hasn't reached the level of joint planning." Gad believes Egypt's permitting the submarine to use the canal, "was more for the Americans than for the Israelis".

The two countries still have just as many points of conflict as they do areas of common interest. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains a sore spot, with each government seemingly pulling in opposite directions. Egypt has worked (unsuccessfully) for years to produce a reconciliation and unity government between Hamas and Fateh--something that Israel staunchly opposes.

Earlier this month, President Mubarak lobbied US President Barack Obama to push Israel for an immediate jump to final status negotiations with the Palestinians. That would essentially be a direct repudiation of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's plan to delay final status talks for years while building up the economy and infrastructure of the occupied West Bank.- Published 27/8/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Ashraf Khalil is the news editor for the English-language edition of Al Masry Al Youm newspaper.

Overcoming the constraints
 James A. Larocco

Egypt and Israel currently have a confluence of strategic interests unparalleled in their histories as nation-states. And those shared interests are increasing, driven by events and trends, both positive and negative, within the region and elsewhere.

These shared strategic interests also happen to be among the top priorities of both nations: Iran; Gaza/Hamas; border control (smuggling, including and especially weapons, trafficking in persons, infiltration); counterterrorism (including and especially Hizballah and al-Qaeda); and Israeli/Egyptian/Palestinian relations and the peace process.

The natural conclusion one might draw from the above is that Egypt and Israel, acting in their own national interests, have been working assiduously to upgrade their strategic relations. To be sure, there have been some notable achievements in recent years, and the current period is arguably the most productive. In my own review, however, the record indicates that these efforts are episodic, marked by profound distrust on both sides, an unwillingness by some in the senior political and military leaderships to accept any upgrading and a weakness in the bilateral institutional framework that thwarts efforts to build on achievements.

There are a number of major constraints on translating these shared interests into concrete actions. For one, leaders and citizens of both nations remain deeply distrustful of the intentions of the other side. This is so visceral that it colors virtually every conversation, every private meeting and every public commentary. While Egyptians understand the strategic value of their cold peace with Israel, they are extremely reluctant to deal with Israelis on anything beyond their most important interests. To Israelis, Egyptians remain a frustrating enigma. As for Egypt's leadership, Israelis feel they can trust President Hosni Mubarak but wonder what will happen when he leaves the scene.

Then too, Egypt cannot be seen publicly as doing Israel's bidding. This constraint limits dramatically what Egypt is prepared to do. It therefore is no surprise that Egyptian-Israeli intelligence cooperation is by far the most developed, the most frequent, the most institutionalized, the most personalized and without question the most productive of all bilateral ties. It is largely outside public scrutiny, and there is always plausible deniability by either side. Military-to-military ties have some institutional framework, but they are extremely weak and limited largely to liaison. There is no ongoing cooperation in this area of any major significance.

Further, Israel does not devote priority to nurturing the relationship with Egypt. Israeli leaders occasionally "rediscover" Egypt, but all too often that does not come from anything positive that has happened, but rather from negative trends in the relationship. Ties are simply not pursued on a sustained basis. And even when they are pursued by individual Israeli leaders, the Egyptian leaders, who stay in place for decades, see their Israeli counterparts shifting seemingly at the blink of an eye as political coalitions keep changing. There are no parliamentary ties, and comments from the Knesset, when they are made about Egypt at all, are usually negative.

Egypt is not even a priority to the Israel Defense Forces. This may seem a harsh assessment, but it's a fact. The IDF spends the majority of its attention on Israel's northern border, with longer-range concerns like Iran gobbling up senior attention. Particularly devastating was a downsizing of the IDF three years ago that led to the shifting of the liaison staff from the Operations Directorate to the Planning Directorate and the abolishment of the only flag-rank officer devoted exclusively to liaison. In fact, because of the crushing demands on the understaffed Planning Directorate, even the colonel ostensibly assigned for liaison is often required to devote time to other tasks. In contrast, the Egyptian liaison staff recently had three flag-rank officers at the top; it currently has two.

Personal relationships are also lacking. It is not mere conventional wisdom that personal relationships are vital both for mutual understanding and for any hope of sustained achievements. While such relationships do exist between some key intelligence officials, they rarely exist elsewhere. Israeli officers and officials at all levels rotate far too quickly.

Despite these constraints, some of which cannot or will not be overcome, I believe there is an urgent imperative to move as far and as quickly as politically possible to strengthen the strategic relationship. I am concerned that with the frequent transitions in Israel and the lack of an institutionalized dialogue, Egypt cannot benefit fully from achievements in its interest. Similarly, this lack of institutionalization of security ties as well as the failure on Israel's part to place very high priority on upgrading security ties may well prove a costly mistake for Israel's interests as Egypt draws closer to its first senior leadership transition in a generation.

With these thoughts in mind, both sides need to act:

* The Israeli leadership must make clear that upgrading the security relationship with Egypt is a key short- and long-term national security priority, and be prepared to devote the necessary time and human resources on a sustained basis. There should be a holistic approach, starting with the leaders themselves but bringing together all elements at all levels, within and outside the government.
* The IDF should establish a true liaison office, in the Operations Directorate, headed by a flag-rank officer. That office should retain key staff as long as possible, allowing for the building and maintaining of personal and professional relationships with their Egyptian counterparts. If necessary, retired officers with existing ties should be brought into the office.
* Egypt should accept the institutionalization of military-to-military ties, especially between operational officers at all levels, recognizing this is not only key to building trust during a time of transition but is also essential for any prospect of achieving the longer-term goal of replicating what Israel has with Jordan: no demilitarized zone and no foreign forces.
* Egypt should be open to expanding bilateral intelligence cooperation, to include intelligence agencies that have a key role in the Sinai and other border areas.
* Israel should consider ways to ease the burden of Gaza on Egypt, perhaps through the establishment of a border crossing regime that ensures that Gazans have sustained access to needed goods and services. In exchange, Egypt must convincingly do all it can to stop smuggling of certain items into Gaza.
* Both sides should expand their dialogue on their shared border, with regular biannual meetings chaired by senior operational military leadership and quarterly meetings at the technical level.

All of the above should be carried out with a full appreciation for the sensitivities of both sides. While maximum secrecy should be the watchword for ongoing discussions, it must be conveyed to outside observers when any steps are agreed upon and implemented that they are in each country's individual national interest.

In conclusion, we have already entered a historic window of opportunity for a meaningful and sustained upgrading of bilateral Egyptian-Israeli security cooperation based on shared and individual interests. Let there be no misunderstanding: significant constraints will limit the scope of this cooperation. That said, there are steps that can be taken within those constraints today to fulfill what so many had hoped would be key fruits of the Camp David treaty.- Published 27/8/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Ambassador James A. Larocco served from 2024 until July 2024 as director general of the MFO in Sinai. Since August 3 he is distinguished professor, Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies, National Defense University, Washington, DC. The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the United States Government.

Egypt wants to remain a regional player
an interview with  Mustafa al-Sawwaf

BI: Egypt appears to be stepping up its mediation between Hamas and Israel over a prisoner exchange. What can Cairo offer the two sides to secure such an exchange and are Egypt's assurances seen as strong enough?

Al-Sawwaf: I believe Egypt doesn't have anything to offer anymore. That's why it sought German intervention to exert pressure on Israel. Egypt doesn't possess any means of pressure on Israel to accomplish such a deal. Neither Egypt nor any other country in the region can offer strong assurances. Israel can only be held to its word by force and it will take a powerful side to oblige Israel to commit to any exchange deal, otherwise Israel will simply re-arrest prisoners or assassinate them.

BI: Why is Egypt interested in mediating between Israel and Hamas?

Al-Sawwaf: Egypt wants to achieve some success with some of the issues in its hands. The prisoner swap is one of those. Indeed, Egypt considers the whole Gaza Strip an Egyptian issue. Thus, to achieve some success with one of the Gaza-related issues is a way for Egypt to show the US administration and European public opinion that Cairo is capable of solving regional crises. This has become especially important to Cairo after the decline of Egypt's regional role and attempts by others to step into that role. In other words, Egypt wants to prove, first to itself, then to others, that it remains an important regional player that can fulfill a unique regional role. To prove this Cairo needs to secure success on a prisoner exchange deal, on Palestinian-Palestinian reconciliation and/or on the ceasefire issue between Hamas and Israel.

BI: There has been a lot of talk about Egypt and Israel deepening their strategic relations in view of what some see as a joint interest in countering Iran as well as recent military maneuvers, including Israeli submarines crossing the Suez. Do you think this is true, and if so, why?

Al-Sawwaf: This is not a case of joint interests, rather of individual interests that happen to have some commonalities. First, if Iran comes to possess nuclear weapons, it will immediately become the strongest country in the region. Accordingly, this will pull the carpet out from under the Egyptian government and Egypt's traditional regional role. Egypt thus seeks to undermine Iranian power and prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons in order to maintain the regional equilibrium that sees Egypt as the most powerful country on the North African side of the Middle East and Iran the most powerful on the Asian side of the Middle East. But in spite of some passive Egyptian positions on the Palestinian issue, I don't think we can really talk about joint Egyptian-Israeli interests, since Egypt's motivation vis--vis policy on Iran differs from Israel's.

BI: How do Israel-Egypt relations affect Gaza border issues and trade restrictions?

Al-Sawwaf: Egypt deals with Gaza according to its own evaluation of its interests. This relationship is constantly under American and European scrutiny and pressure, because Egypt receives a significant amount of aid from there and Cairo is wary of in any way endangering that support. The Egyptian leadership is aware that if the US should seek to change any regime in the region it could do so and, consequently, the Egyptian regime is careful to protect itself.

BI: How do Israel-Egypt relations affect Hamas-Israel and Hamas-Egypt relations?

Al-Sawwaf: I don't want to put Israel in the middle between Hamas and Egypt. The relationship between Egypt and the Gaza Strip is the same as that between the Egyptian regime and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, has both direct and indirect links to the global Muslim Brotherhood. Hence the tense relations between the Egyptian leadership and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt are reflected in relations between Egypt and Gaza. In consequence, some of the suffering of the people of Gaza is due to the poor relations between the Egyptian regime and the Muslim Brotherhood there. Egypt considers Hamas a danger to itself because it sees in Hamas a reflection of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and worries that the popularity of Hamas, as reflected in the 2024 parliamentary elections, could be replicated in Egypt.

BI: In view of Egypt-Israel relations, can Egypt act as a neutral mediator with Hamas over Gaza?

Al-Sawwaf: I believe Egypt has never been and will never be neutral when it comes to domestic Palestinian issues. But when it comes to Palestinian-Israeli issues, Egypt will, of course, support the Palestinians.- Published 27/8/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Mustafa al-Sawwaf is editor-in-chief of the Gaza-based Falasteen daily newspaper.

The elusive alliance
 Ephraim Sneh

The Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty has withstood tough tests throughout its three decades. Two wars in Lebanon and two Palestinian intifadas caused neither its cancellation nor its suspension. Yet the treaty has never reached the level of an Israeli-Egyptian strategic alliance.

Such an alliance is objectively justified; it emerges from the confluence of the two countries' existential interests. The stability of Egypt's secular regime is a supreme Israeli interest. Israel is not and will never be an Arab country. Despite its military power and per capita economic production that is ten times that of Egypt, Israel does not contest Egypt's preeminent status in the Arab world. It neither seeks nor is able to replace Egypt in its regional role.

Thus there is room here for a partnership without competition. As each of the partners is strengthened economically and militarily, it would strengthen its counterpart. Sadly, though, the Egyptian establishment is not interested in such an alliance. Why?

The Egyptian political, military and intellectual establishment has yet to internalize the change that is taking place in the region. This establishment lives and breathes the old fault line, the one that separated Israel on one side from all the Arab states on the other. Yet this line ceased to exist years ago. It has been replaced by a new fault line: on one side Iran and its proxies and on the other the rest of the countries in the region.

The refusal to recognize the fact that Israel and Egypt are on the same side of the regional divide has deep emotional roots, particularly in the Egyptian intellectual establishment that was cultivated by Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian president who believed in pan-Arabism and led the Arab world's war on Israel. Yet this is not the only emotional factor preventing important senior Egyptians from confronting the objective imperative for a strategic alliance with Israel.

There are some in Egypt who believe if there is even the shadow of a confrontation hovering permanently over the region, Egypt can maintain its preeminence better than when there is no longer a trace of Arab-Israel confrontation. Egypt's military power (built up over the past three decades with generous American help) is more necessary and significant in a tense region than in one where states are tested primarily on the basis of their economic prowess. This distorted approach holds that Israel's strategic capabilities detract from Egypt's regional Arab preeminence: that Israel is a competitor.

There is no other way to explain the obsessive struggle led by Egypt, inspired personally by former Foreign Minister Amr Moussa, against Israel's nuclear capabilities. That Israel's opaque nuclear policy deters Egypt's enemies as well as Israel's is extremely difficult for the Egyptian political and diplomatic establishment to internalize.

Here we must note--a reality no Israeli can ignore--that the continued existence of the Israel-Arab conflict and our control over the Palestinian people in the West Bank provide an effective excuse for the Egyptian opponents of rapprochement with Israel. Yet I am not certain that even if we do what we should do and reach agreement with the Palestinians, the stand of those hostile toward us in Egypt would change for the better.

When Hamas took over Gaza in June 2024, I thought this would trigger a reversal of the Egyptian position. I reasoned that the precedent of Muslim Brotherhood rule (in the guise of the Palestinian Hamas) on Egypt's border would constitute a kind of wake-up call and catalyze change in the Egyptian approach.

Unfortunately, this was not the case. In the course of the ensuing two years, Egypt has not acted to eliminate Hamas rule in Gaza as its shared interest with the Palestinian Authority and Israel would appear to dictate. Instead, Egypt has made every effort to conciliate between the Hamas leadership in Gaza and the rest of the world. Egypt has mediated between Hamas and Israel and in particular has tried energetically to reconcile Hamas with Fateh. Were this ever accomplished, it would completely eliminate any chance of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. From the standpoint of Egypt's real interests, Hamas-Fateh reconciliation would invigorate the rule of extremist Islam in Gaza, not eliminate it.

Some 1,400 tunnels currently link Egypt with Gaza. Everything finds its way through them--not just Iranian funds for Hamas. Yet in recent months, something has begun to happen, something that could finally have a positive effect on Egyptian-Israeli relations. The capture of Hizballah's anti-Egyptian espionage and sabotage network may have shaken the Egyptian government by demonstrating exactly where the regional fault line lies and against which shared enemy we need to join hands.

The immediate order of the day is to formulate a strategy shared by Egypt, the Palestinians and Israel for ending Hamas rule in Gaza. It was Palestinian incompetence, Egyptian negligence and Israeli indifference that enabled the Hamas takeover in the first place. Now the three parties responsible for this disaster must cooperate in order to eliminate the Iranian outpost on the Israeli-Egyptian border and bring freedom and economic salvation to 1.5 million Gazans.

It is from this joint effort that a future Israeli-Egyptian strategic alliance might possibly emerge.- Published 27/8/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Ephraim Sneh, a retired IDF general, served in Israeli governments as minister of health, minister of transportation and deputy minister of defense. He is currently chairman of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Strategic Dialogue at the Netanya Academic College.

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