There was a moment of high praise from Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu for Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi late last week.
Speaking at the Egyptian Embassy in Tel Aviv during a ceremony that Ambassador Khaled Azmi was hosting on the occasion of Egypt’s National Day, Netanyahu said that “our two countries, and many other countries, are fighting extremism, violence and terrorism. I would like to commend my colleague President Al-Sisi for standing firmly against this wave of extremism and terrorism.”
“In my meetings with President Al-Sisi, I was very impressed not only with his leadership, but also with his intelligence. From him I understood many things about the challenges we face, and we spoke about ways to face them in the best possible way,” Netanyahu added.
The remarks of the Israeli prime minister received considerable attention in the press inside and outside the region.
The main interpretation was that Egypt and Israel were in a moment of closer relations than ever before, though Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies (ACPPS) analyst Mohamed Gomaa, an expert on the Arab region, shrugged off what he said was “an overrated reaction to otherwise very typical remarks”.
“It is not as if this is the first time the prime minister and president of Israel have attended the event that the Egyptian embassy in Israel hosts to mark the National Day of Egypt. It is usually the case that they do so, and it is also usually the case that the senior Israeli officials present praise the peaceful relations between the two countries and make a nod of appreciation to the Egyptian leadership,” Gomaa said.
This was precisely the case this year, he added, as Egypt and Israel marked the 40th anniversary of the signing of the peace treaty between them. During the National Day reception at the Egyptian embassy, both Netanyahu and Israeli President Reuven Rivilin paid tribute to the treaty and expressed their wish to see closer cooperation with Egypt.
According to Gomaa, during the past 40 years of Egyptian-Israeli peace, “things have been steady.” There has been cooperation on certain fronts and not on others, he argued. “And for the most part it would be hard to argue that relations today are significantly closer or warmer between Egypt and Israel in comparison to during the rule of [former president Hosni] Mubarak, as some might suggest,” he stated.
It was not so long after signing the peace treaty with then Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin in March 1979 that former president Anwar Al-Sadat was assassinated in October 1981. Mubarak, the then vice-president, took over. Since his first days in office and until he stepped down on 11 February 2011, Mubarak observed to the full the requirements of the peace treaty with Israel.
He only summoned the ambassador to Israel on two occasions, the first in the early 1980s with the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the second in the late 1990s with the Israeli war on Gaza.
During his 30 years in office, Mubarak only went to Israel once, in order to take part in the funeral of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, assassinated in November 1995 by an anti-peace Israeli militant. However, he received Israeli officials on a regular basis, essentially in Sharm El-Sheikh, and often enough with, before, or after Palestinian officials.
According to Gomaa, during his five years in office, Al-Sisi has not shown such a direct engagement with Israeli officials. Obviously, he argued, this has not been the moment for Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, but instead has been the time to face up to the “serious challenge of terrorist groups” that have made their disturbing presence felt in Sinai.
Clearly, Gomaa added, this was a top national security issue for Egypt. Observers also argue that security has become a central issue for Egyptian-Israeli cooperation in a way that it has never been before. This, Gomaa argued, “is not at all surprising. It is a concern for both countries in view of the increased wave of terror we have been seeing. This was not the case during the Mubarak years. It is a very different situation now, especially in Sinai.”
Gomaa argued that the extensive Egyptian security presence in Sinai is in fact one outcome of the security cooperation between the two countries. And while critics have expressed concerns over the liberties granted to the Israeli army in relation to the war on terrorism on the border with Egypt, Gomaa insisted that operations on both sides of the borders were “carefully measured and closely coordinated”.
He said that there had been an exaggerated assessment of how far Israeli anti-terror actions were being conducted in Sinai. “Many of the accounts in the press are inaccurate, if not fabricated,” he argued.
According to Gomaa, there are new understandings between Egypt and Israel that permit each side to act promptly after having notified the other to stop a possible terrorist attack. To portray such agreements as an Egyptian “accommodation” of Israeli military prerogatives is both wrong and misleading, Gomaa insisted.
Gomaa said that the new profile of cooperation between Egypt and Israel in managing natural gas resources was not a function of any particular political warmth between the political leaderships on both sides, but rather was a function of the new finds of natural gas in the region and Egypt’s intention to become a hub for gas in the region.
“Egypt has made the most of its gas resources over the past few years as part of wider finds that have also been made by Israel and other East Mediterranean countries. So, this is a new development that should not be interpreted as a new sign of closer relations between Egypt and Israel, as some have been suggesting,” Gomaa said.
During his speech on Egypt National Day at the Embassy of Egypt in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu particularly praised the cooperation between the two countries in managing gas resources. During the Mubarak years, Egypt, to the criticism of many experts, exported natural gas to Israel at questionably low prices.
Following the 25 January Revolution, most of the exports were suspended, leading to litigation that cost Egypt millions of dollars in compensation to Israel. As part of an out of court settlement between Cairo and Tel Aviv that considerably reduced the volume of compensation that Egypt had to pay to Israel there was a deal that allowed Egypt to import gas at a price that some critics suggest is overrated.
Officials and businessmen however argue that the price is not too high and that at the end of the day the scheme is meant to liquidate and resell the gas.
Netanayhu said in his speech that a pilot operation for gas pipelines from Israel to Egypt had begun. “At this moment we are conducting a pilot — Israeli gas flowing into Egypt — and in another four months it will be even more,” Netanyahu said.
“We have commitments to security. We enjoy the prosperity and peace between us, and we would like to see a more comprehensive peace,” the Israeli prime minister added.
According to Gomaa, this development is only part of a wider scheme of East Mediterranean cooperation that will eventually include Greece and Cyprus. Cooperation between these four countries is in the direct economic interest of each of them, he added.
Gomaa also noted that a regional meeting on natural gas cooperation that Egypt hosted earlier this year saw the presence not just of officials from Israel, Greece and Cyprus, but also from the Palestinian Authority and Lebanon. “Overall, I cannot see much progress in bilateral relations with Israel, and even if there is closer cooperation then it should not be exaggerated or read out of context,” Gomaa said.
According to the ACPPS expert, even from the perspective of managing the Palestinian issue it would be better for Egypt to have better relations with Israel. “One has to take into consideration the fact that the current US administration is offering Israel almost unprecedented and unconditional support. It would be unwise for anyone to try to defy this,” he argued.
Good Egyptian-Israeli relations, Gomaa argued, have to be credited for helping to secure a truce between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.
Hamas leaders have often been on record praising the role of Egypt in maintaining a frail but necessary truce between Egypt and Israel.
This ongoing rapport between Cairo and Hamas, Gomaa said, was essential to Egypt’s national security interests, especially in relation to the war on terror. Hamas sources have spoken repeatedly over the past two years of “good security cooperation” with Egypt that has been essential in helping Cairo abort the penetration of militants into Sinai from the borders with Gaza.
“Those are important calculations,” Gomaa said. And at one point or another, he argued, Egypt will need its good rapport with Israel to help start another peace process, even if this is later rather than sooner.
DEAL OF THE CENTURY
During his speech at the Egyptian embassy last week, Netanyahu said he would keep an open “mind and heart” to the peace deal US President Donald Trump is planning to offer later this year, probably in September.
Soon after assuming office, Trump spoke of a plan to offer what he said would be “the deal of the century” to help find a once-and-for-all Palestinian-Israeli peace.
The text of the deal was never announced, however. Today, Trump is waiting for the outcome of the Israeli elections due in the autumn of this year that might or might not keep Netanyahu in office.
Leaks of the deal that is being drafted by a small team working within the White House have been alarming for both the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority and for Hamas that is in control of Gaza.
Last month, Bahrain hosted a workshop for officials and members of the business communities from all sides to examine the economic side of the deal. In addition to the Palestinian Authority, several Arab governments shrugged off the event. Egypt sent an assistant minister to take part in the meeting.
According to Gomaa, the participation of Egypt in this event, unpopular with the Palestinians, was essential because Cairo has to be in the know about what is going on in the minds of the Americans. Ultimately, he argued, participation is one thing and making commitments is another.
Moreover, Gomaa added, it would not be wise for Egypt to take a step back on its relations with Israel at this moment of growing Arab openness towards Tel Aviv. At the end of the day, he concluded, “there are no big signs of closer Egyptian-Israeli relations at the popular level.
“I think in the four consecutive decades of Egyptian-Israeli peace, relations have been essentially official, and cooperation has always focused on security and some economic issues. It’s business as usual, for the most part,” he stated.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: No change in Egypt-Israel relations