Normalization of ties between Egypt and Israel


Hugh Fitzgerald

Until now, Israel has been satisfied with its “cold peace” with Egypt. This is a peace not between peoples, but between the security establishments of both countries, that cooperate in fighting the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas is the Palestinian avatar, and other Jihadis in the Sinai, including remnants of ISIS. But with the normalization of ties between Israel and three Arab states – the UAE, Bahrain, and Sudan – now is a good time for Israel to press Egypt for a warmer peace.

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….

The Egyptian government until now has not wanted to expend political capital in attempting to persuade a population largely hostile to Israel to see the Jewish state in a better light. But it may be persuaded to do so if the economic benefits from a warmer peace are substantial enough to lessen the popular hostility toward Israel.

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….

Egypt established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1979. In the 41 years since, there has been no encouragement by Egypt of tourism or trade between the two countries, and nothing like the economic cooperation that has developed so swiftly, barely two months after normalization, between Israeli and Emirati businessmen. While plans are already being made for an exchange of visits by the Israeli leader and his counterparts in the Emirates and Bahrain, Egypt’s leaders have hardly ever visited Israel. Hosni Mubarak never made an official state visit to Israel; he went only to attend Rabin’s funeral in 1995. El-Sisi appeared in public with Netanyahu for the first time only in September 2017; he, too, has yet to make a state visit to Israel. This deliberate distancing of Egypt’s leaders from the Jewish state has not, however, had any effect on security ties between the two countries; these remain excellent.

Egypt’s leaders have been far too fearful about the effect of establishing closer ties with Israel on the Egyptian people. The assumption seems to be that popular hostility to Israel is permanent and immutable. But if Cairo were to put its mind to work, it could come up with ways to encourage a warming of relations. The government-controlled media could, for example, report on all the deals being made by Emiratis and Bahrainis with Israel, and how they stand to benefit in trade, technology, tourism. The media in Egypt, controlled by the government, could prod the public to adopt a more pragmatic, and thus friendlier, stance toward the Jewish state: just look at how much the Emiratis are benefiting! And the Bahrainis! And now the Sudanese! Stories could be broadcast about how Israel has become a world leader in precisely those areas of most interest to Egyptian farmers: drip irrigation, wastewater management, and solar energy. It could broadcast interviews with Israeli agronomists detailing their advances in Israeli agriculture – look, these Israelis don’t have horns or cloven feet! – and so that they can declare their eagerness to share their expertise with the Egyptians. Egypt’s media could cover in detail Israeli tourists who have visited Egypt, and are recorded flatteringly describing the “wonder and amazement we felt in visiting your ancient land.” Flattery, after all, does get you somewhere. Feelgood stories designed to change, little by little, the general Egyptian view from one of hostility , to one of acceptance of the Jewish state.

Another reason for Egypt to have preserved a “cold peace” was so that Israel could usefully remain “the enemy” – despite the peace treaty – toward which people’s frustration and anger could be turned. And having Israel as a permanent enemy, according to the author, has also been a way to justify the large amounts of money allocated to Egypt’s military.

But Egypt can find enemies other than Israel in the region on which to focus popular discontent. There are two countries that come immediately to mind: Iran, which is indeed an enemy to Egypt’s overwhelmingly Sunni population, especially now, as it attempts to build a “Shi’a crescent” from the Gulf (Yemen) to the Mediterranean (Lebanon), via Iraq and Syria. Another enemy at hand is Turkey, and its leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with his Ottoman dreams of becoming the leader of the Muslim world. The military bases he has established in Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Somalia worry many Arabs. Egyptians look with alarm on this extension of Turkish power into Arab lands; they have a historic memory of their ancestors’ mistreatment by the Ottoman Turks; animus toward Ankara comes naturally. Iran and Turkey are all the “enemies” the Egyptian government needs.

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….

Israel’s leaders may have been in the past content not to press for a warmer peace, that is normalization of ties, with Egypt, as long as the security cooperation continued, and they have been able to keep in constant contact with their counterparts in Egypt’s security apparatus. They may feel that pursuing a warmer peace might unduly antagonize Egypt’s people and even threaten the regime of El-Sisi; some Israelis would rather not take that chance. But on the other hand, such a “cold peace” makes it more likely that should there be a change of regime in Egypt, the peace with Israel, not having grown any deep roots, will be easy to pull up. Israel has been asking too little of Egypt for the past 41 years; it needs that peace to be watered, so as to grow deeper roots, brighter foliage, an altogether sturdier plant. Israel ought to attempt to convince Cairo that it can slowly turn up the temperature on its peace deal with Israel, always with the understanding that it can turn down the temperature again if this warmer peace creates too much internal dissension.

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.

Since the UAE and Bahrain are going full speed ahead after normalizing ties with Israel, making business deals of every sort (in trade, technology, and tourism) with Israelis, and their governments enjoy sufficient support for these policies – overwhelmingly so in the Emirates, somewhat less so in the Shi’a-majority Bahrain – shouldn’t this make Egyptian leaders willing to follow suit, albeit at a less frenetic, more cautious pace, and always alert for signs of domestic opposition?

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.

I disagree completely with the first sentence in the paragraph above. I don’t see Egypt as being “forced to radicalize” – that is, to become more opposed to Israel, and needing to increase “the Egyptian public’s enmity” toward Israel because of the Gulf states growing closer to the Jewish state. Instead, the Egyptian government could be exploiting the normalization of ties between Israel and the Gulf states, with a media campaign describing all the many deals the Emiratis and Bahrainis are making with Israel, the obvious benefits they will derive from those deals, and noting the areas in which Egypt, “just like our Arab brothers in the Gulf” could derive the most benefit from closer ties with Israel. If It conducted such a campaign in its government-controlled media, the Egyptian government would be backed to the hilt by the UAE and Bahrain, that might give financial support beyond what Egypt already receives from them, in order to help spread the glad tidings about all the benefits that normalization of ties with Israel can bring. .

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….

Israel should request, and not “demand” as the writer suggests — which would only get backs up in Cairo — a warming of relations between the two countries. Israeli leaders should stress not the stick – that is, the threat of reducing security cooperation with Egypt, but the carrot — the significant economic benefits that Egypt “deserves” to derive from closer ties with Israel. Why, the Israelis could ask their Egyptian counterparts, should the Gulf states, already rich, derive profit from closer ties to Israel, and not Egypt?

The author mentions that Israel should ask of Egypt a “series of actions that will promote normalization.” Unfortunately, he doesn’t describe any of those actions. But here’s what might be among them:

The Egyptian president, General El-Sisi, should be encouraged to make a state visit to Israel, where Israel’s warm welcome will be broadcast back in Egypt. It might make some Egyptians, pleased at the enthusiastic reception he’s accorded, think better of Israelis. Israel’s leader should in turn be invited to Cairo, where he can heap high his praise for his gracious hosts, “the people of Egypt.” Delegations of lower-level officials – cabinet members, members of the Knesset and the Egyptian Parliament, should also be encouraged to exchange visits.. Israel should be quick to offer assistance to Egyptian farmers, in drip irrigation, wastewater management, and solar energy. This offer should receive massive coverage in the government-controlled Egyptian media. And at every step, the visiting Israelis, whether politicians or agronomists or tourists, should express their pleasure and wonder at being invited to “see your beautiful, ancient, and amazing land.” Tour the pyramids. See the Sphinx. Visit the Aswan Dam. At every stop, Israelis must assure their hosts that they are deeply impressed.

Certainly the Americans can be enrolled in this effort to bring about a “warm” Israel-Egypt peace. The Americans can call in their chips. Since 1980 the US has given Egypt $40 billion in economic aid and $30 billion in military aid. $70 billion is a lot of leverage. And Egypt still receives $1.5 billion a year in American aid that it would not like to endanger. When the Americans make a request, Egypt has to listen. Washington can insist that an end be put to anti-Israel propaganda, like the films showing fictional attacks on the Israeli navy. It can tell the Egyptian government that instead of punishing Egyptian citizens for cooperating with Israelis, they ought to be praised.

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.

Unlike the author, I think the normalization of ties between Israel and the Gulf states can only help push Egypt in the same direction. Its people will be able to see how other Arab states are happily reaping the benefits of closer ties with Israel, and be persuaded that they, too, should derive economic benefits from a warmer peace with Israel, to supplement the already existing security benefits. Israel has to supply, early on, the kind of economic assistance that is highly visible, and that demonstrates its value early on. Agriculture is one obvious area: higher crop yields don’t take years to attain. Israeli agronomists, using advanced methods of drip irrigation and wastewater management, can within a single growing season produce results that will impress Egyptian farmers.

That normalization of ties between Egypt and Israel will turn what has been a cold peace into something much warmer. And they will no longer be just “peace partners,” but something much better: friends with benefits.


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