Looking out for themselves
Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid was in Cairo on an official visit on Thursday during which he met President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri. Before arriving in Cairo, Lapid tweeted, “strengthening and deepening Israeli-Egyptian relations in political, security and economic realms is in the vital interests of Israel.”
Cairo has no problems developing relations with Israel in principle, as can be seen by the exchange of visits between the two sides. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met President Al-Sisi in Sharm El-Sheikh three months ago, which paved the way for a historic amendment to the Egyptian-Israeli peace accord, permitting an increase in the number of Egyptian forces and their level of equipment along the borders in the Sinai. The result was a qualitative forward step in Egypt’s deployment and logistics capacities and a boost for Egyptian national security.
However, to Cairo, the most crucial consideration in these meetings is making progress on the Palestinian question. This is a priority in Egyptian foreign policy in general and in this bilateral relationship, in particular. The statement released by the Egyptian presidency upon Lapid’s visit made a point of alluding to the framework of international legitimacy governing the peace process that Egypt hopes to revive as soon as possible on the basis of the “two-state” solution. The Foreign Ministry similarly stated that Cairo will continue its efforts and communications with all parties to create a climate conducive to reviving the desired political process. Lapid, however, touted the formula of the Israeli right: “economy for security”. Egypt has long since made clear that this is not a recipe for a durable solution and it has consistently condemned Israeli settlement expansion policies that obstruct the realisation of a viable peace (on the eve of Lapid’s visit, Israel announced a decision to advance plans for the creation of a Jewish neighbourhood called Givat Shaked, to be located in an area in East Jerusalem that was at the centre of an international controversy over a quarter of a century ago).
Also on the agenda in Cairo was the question of Gaza’s reconstruction. Before Lapid’s visit, news sources in Gaza cited claims attributed to unidentified leaders in Hamas that Cairo was to blame for delaying reconstruction operations. In fact, a couple of days after Lapid’s visit, Cairo inaugurated the second phase of the reconstruction in a conference, in Gaza, attended by numerous Palestinian governmental and political delegations. The Egyptian Committee for Gaza Reconstruction stated, “The reconstruction projects are carried out in accordance with the instructions of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi. The Egyptian engineering teams working to rebuild the destroyed areas have opened opportunities for local Palestinian firms to take part in the reconstruction.”
If there is a link between Lapid’s visit and the beginning of the second phase of reconstruction, it is Cairo’s determination to forestall renewed escalation between the Palestinian factions in Gaza and Israel. President Al-Sisi stressed this point in his meeting with Lapid, saying that Egypt is sustaining its efforts to prevent a resurgence of tensions between the Palestinians and Israelis. In other words, Egypt’s actions, as evidenced in the Gaza conference, are designed to keep both sides on track with the ceasefire that Cairo brokered to end the fourth Gaza war.
Lapid had first announced his two-phased plan for Gaza in September, according to the Times of Israel. “The first stage would entail rehabilitating infrastructure in the Strip in exchange for tight international oversight — as well as quiet from Hamas. In the second stage of Lapid’s plan, the two sides would see the realisation of more ambitious projects. An artificial island would be built off the coast of the enclave — a long-proposed plan to see a port built in Gaza — and the West Bank and Gaza would be linked by infrastructure projects,” the newspaper reported.
Also during his visit, Lapid presented his country’s view on the Iranian question which takes priority with Israel. He said that Israel was preparing a military strike against Iran, a plan that Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz presented to US officials during his visit to Washington over the weekend. The recently resumed negotiations in Vienna, which have entered a seventh round, have yet to make significant progress toward reviving the nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 (the US, UK, France, China, Russia and Germany). Israel seems set on another military strike regardless of the prospects of a renewed deal and it appears that Cairo does not approve of this approach. The Egyptian statement merely noted that the discussions dealt with developments on the regional and international arenas. Analysts here say that Egypt does not want a new regional war and that Cairo’s calculations on the Iranian question do not match Israel’s.
As a gesture to demonstrate Israel’s desire to strengthen bilateral ties with Egypt, the foreign minister returned 95 ancient Egyptian artefacts that had been smuggled into Israel and seized by Israeli authorities in 2013. The items include fragments of hieroglyphic tablets, a part of a wooden sarcophagus with Pharaonic inscriptions, papyri, and figurines of ancient Egyptian deities. Four of the artefacts were confiscated from a smuggler by Israeli customs, while 91 others were seized from an antiques dealer in Jerusalem. The Israeli government and Israeli antiquities authority decided to return the items to Egypt as a “gesture of goodwill”, an Israeli Foreign Ministry statement said, adding that Israeli authorities are “interested in working in concert with the Egyptian authorities to protect archaeological treasures that belong to humanity’s culture”.
Israeli reports said that Lapid also broached the question of an Egyptian-mediated prisoner swap. Israel seeks the return of Israeli POWs or soldiers’ bodies held by Hamas which, in return, seeks the release of Palestinian leaders in Israeli jails. The available sources mention no news of progress on this file.
Egyptian-Israeli relations continue in their customary bilateral framework as laid out in the peace treaty between them. From recent developments it appears that Israel wants to introduce a dynamic that would attune this relationship to the Abraham Accords which is Israel’s new map for charting its way in the Middle East. Cairo believes that its current map best serves its strategic purposes.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 December, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.