Israel-Egypt: Peace treaty not peace

Dina Ezzat, Friday 28 Mar 2014

On the 35th anniversary of the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, Ahram Online explores relations between the two countries in recent years

A photo of a previous Egypt-Israel pipeline explosion in Sinai (Photo: Ahram)

An independent economic source, who asked to remain anonymous, told Ahram Online this week that as part of a plan to deal with severe energy shortages, “which might lead to electricity cuts of over five hours a day across the nation during the summer,” the authorities are considering all options, not excluding the import of natural gas from Israel “at a price that could probably be much higher than that Israel was charged when it imported gas from Egypt.”

A government source declined to confirm the news but said that no decision would be taken on the matter “most probably” before the inauguration of a new president this summer.

The export of natural gas from Israel constitutes another element of otherwise stable but limited Egyptian-Israeli trade and economic cooperation.

Trade and economic cooperation have been generally the most stable factor of the bilateral relations between Cairo and Tel Aviv which were was established 35 years ago when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin signed the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in March 1979.

Trade between the two countries dropped somewhat after the ouster of president Hosni Mubarak in 2011, but government officials in Cairo say that this drop is possibly incidental.

“Cooperation in natural gas has been very stable for many years despite the suspension and trade dispute that occurred after the 25 January Revolution removed Mubarak -- but this is the case with trade cooperation in general, limited and stable,” said a government official.

Trade cooperation between Egypt and Israel has been generally focused on the textile industry -- with Egypt, Israel and the US being members of the Qualified Industrial Zone that allows Egyptian products that have an Israeli component free access to the US market.

Other than this there has been a generally stable export-import cooperation of a limited list of commodities that are generally integrated into non-Israeli commodities before they find their way to the Egyptian market.

“It is very unfortunate that we cannot be pragmatic and say this particular country has good quality and inexpensive commodities and we are going to import from it because it is in our interest; after all these years an Israeli commodity on say the shelf of a supermarket would not be picked up except by a few people -- if we assume that any supermarket would at all dare to carry, say, Israeli fruit juice,” said a member of the Egyptian business community who has been doing business with Israel.

Like the vast majority of Egyptian entrepreneurs who cooperate with Israeli counterparts, the businessman insists on being anonymous and on keeping a low profile for fear of being “stigmatised as dealing with the enemy.”

“I really don’t understand; we have a peace deal and we cannot do business, it has been 35 years since this peace treaty was signed and still it is a big issue if someone said let us do business with Israel or let us benefit of their agricultural expertise,” he said.

Under the 30-year rule of Mubarak, who came to power after Sadat was assassinated in 1981, as a result of his signing of the peace treaty with Israel, trade and agricultural cooperation with Israel were matched by security and political cooperation.

The security cooperation went way beyond the three annual coordination meetings between the two sides to include intensive intelligence cooperation especially during the last few years of the Mubarak rule with political-militant Islamist groups, especially Hamas and Hezbollah, being the target of this cooperation.

“I clearly remember that during the 2006 Israeli attack on Lebanon there was top intelligence information regarding Hezbollah going from Cairo and from other Arab capitals to Israeli counterparts, with the hope that Israel would fully eliminate Hezbollah, which was perceived as an adversary by Cairo due to its ties with both Tehran and Damascus that were antagonising Egypt,” said a retired Egyptian diplomat who was in service at the time.

This testimony is seconded by a US diplomat who attended part of the talks conducted by top Egyptian officials with counterparts from the US in Washington at the time. He argued that for Egypt Hezbollah and to a lesser degree Hamas, Israel’s worst enemies, were also enemies and “the two countries cooperated” against both. This cooperation, according to the account of all concerned sides, was also very present in the winter of 2009 during operation Cast Lead, one of the most horrifying Israeli aggressions against Palestinians in Gaza.

This said, Egyptian diplomatic and intelligence sources say that for Egypt, including for Mubarak himself, Israel was also an enemy.

“Mubarak received Israeli officials regularly and he encouraged business relations to an extent and he cooperated when it came to the containment of Hamas and Hezbollah and also Iran, but he was clear that Israel was the number one enemy for Egypt; this was the military creed all through his rule,” said a former minister who served under Mubarak.

She added: “Mubarak was a realistic man; he was aware that Egypt is in need of stable relations with Israel and he was willing to use these relations to encourage some sort of a peace deal between Palestinians and Israelis because he knew that it was impossible to do things otherwise.”

During the rule of Mubarak Egyptian intelligence passed information on Hezbollah to Israel and was following up on any unchecked communication between Egyptians and Israelis. And, said a retired senior intelligence officer, “all those who had direct relations with Israelis at all levels including intelligence officers, militaries and diplomats were subject to firm scrutiny.”

Indeed, during the rule of Mubarak several Egyptians and Israelis were arrested and tried for espionage -- with the case of Arab-Israeli Azzam Azzam being the most famous in the 1990s.

“Every single Israeli and American official asked for Azzam to be released and Mubarak was very stubborn about it and he only allowed it when he thought he could get something in return,” said the intelligence officer.

Moreover, he added, Mubarak, “who was always trying to curry favour with the US through the Israeli gate – sometimes to spare himself from criticism on human rights” was not willing to do anything to end the state of what Israelis have always complained was “ a cold peace” , given that it never parted form the strict confines of official relations and some officially monitored business relations.

“It was no secret that there was nobody in the country from Mubarak down who encouraged any cultural cooperation for example, and when the Israelis nagged about it, he would always tell them that the people are angry with Israel because of what Israel is doing to the Palestinians,” said the former minister. She added that Mubarak might not have cared very much about the Palestinians “but he was certainly aware of the Egyptian apprehension towards Israel despite the long years of peace -- but it has been long years of a peace treaty and not of peace really.”

So while Egypt was observing its treaty obligations of not airing films or songs that were produced during the years of Egyptian-Israeli war and were considered to promote anti-Israeli hostility, the culture ministry was very firm in declining Israeli participation in regional or international events that it organised -- despite the repeated attempts on the Israeli side.

At the same time, Egyptian intelligence was involved in supporting the production of TV series reflecting on the history of Israeli occupation of Egyptian and other Arab territories. One of the most famous soap operas of the 1990s, Raafat Elhaggan, was produced with intelligence support, and is based on the true story of an Egyptian spy who was based in Israel.

The intelligence services were behind similar other productions as well. “We never thought that the generation born after the end of the wars with Israel should grow up to think that Israel is just like any other country; we wanted to live in peaceful neighbourly relations but we did not want to forget history, even though we thought we should move on,” said the intelligence source.

While moving on, Egypt was keeping a very close eye on hostile Israeli schemes against Egypt. “We carefully monitored Israeli expansion in East Africa, especially across the Nile Basin countries, and we monitored the Israeli encouragement of Ethiopia to start building the Renaissance Dam. Now we are stuck with the shortage it is going to cost us in terms of our annual share of the Nile water,” said an Egyptian diplomat who followed Egyptian-African relations.

According to this diplomat, the fact that the Mubarak regime failed to react promptly on the matter had to do with the decaying capacity of the ageing and ailing president rather than “any assumed wish to accommodate Israel”. “We did accommodate Israel in some things but certainly not on national security matters,” he added.

According to the account of several diplomats, intelligence and military sources, the worst part of the Egyptian-Israeli treaty has to do with the security arrangements that significantly undermined the Egyptian presence in Sinai in what eventually turned the peninsula into a hub for drug and human trafficking as well as militant activities.

In this too they also blame the reluctant will of the Mubarak regime to pursue serious development in Sinai, beyond the limited but successful tourism infrastructure in southern Sinai.

“Obviously, we lacked the resources to do it, but I also think we lacked the political will to do it; there are so many projects that could have been done across Sinai to serve the interest of the people who live there, but Mubarak was always reluctant -- partially I think because he did not want to start any projects that could be subject to debate with Israel,” said another former minister of the Mubarak regime.

“Mubarak wanted to keep relations with Israel at certain confines and to stick to these confines he went too far, I think, in avoiding any tampering with the status quo of Sinai -- which is very unfortunate,” he said.

During the three years that followed the Mubarak era, Israel got to see that in the collective Egyptian consciousness, it remains the enemy. Israeli diplomats in Cairo, who had often complained volumes over their isolation, were shocked, to quote what they shared with Cairo-based European diplomats, to see the public rejoice when months after the ouster of Mubarak a young man found his way to the tenth floor Giza apartment where they were based, and tore down the Israeli flag. Today, the Israeli diplomatic mission operates from unpublicised venues and at a smaller than average capacity, especially now that the exchange of official visits at a high level has been halted.

“This is the case despite the business as usual regarding the security cooperation and despite lots of direct communication over the increase in Egyptian forces and arms and military equipment in Sinai, way beyond the limitations of the peace treaty,” said an Egyptian diplomat.

This diplomat excluded any serious chance for the peace treaty to be re-visited anytime soon with the objective of rectifying the security arrangements. “The Israelis have no reason to accept it and we have no leverage to force it,” he stated.

For the near future, nobody is expecting any serious changes in the profile of Egyptian-Israeli relations: a cold peace that is executed essentially at the official level and that fails to get Egyptians, even those who were born after the peace treaty was signed in 1979, to think of Israel as anything but an enemy state with which Egypt has a peace deal.

“They think because the history curricula in school does not refer to the horrors that Israel did to us in the years before the treaty and that it is still doing to the Palestinians that we will think of Israel as we think of any other state -- well, no, we don’t think of Israel as anything but a hostile state,” said Sarah, a 21 year-old Egyptian who graduated last year from the law department at Cairo University. “Israel is built on the stolen land and broken lives of Palestinians; it is the enemy,” she said.

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