Egypt and Israel: Peace but not peaceful
Relations are based on commonality of strategic interests, without bringing together the people of both countries to overcome decades of enmity
One doubts whether Tawfik Okasha, an Egyptian lawmaker, could have expected that an invitation to Israeli Ambassador Haim Koren, for dinner at his home would stir up such political commotion among his country’s media and parliament. Let alone, he could hardly have predicted that a photo of this minor event, posted by the Israeli embassy on Facebook, would lead to having a shoe hurled at him by another legislator, and a dismissal from the Egyptian parliament.
Mr. Okasha is no stranger to controversy, in both his TV career and as parliamentarian, nevertheless, those who scolded Mr. Okasha, barely had any details regarding the nature of the conversation between the Israeli envoy and the Egyptian politician. This incident could have been dismissed as a storm in the Egyptian domestic political teacup, had it not exemplified the relations between Israel and Egypt since they signed a peace agreement in 1979.
President Sadat’s historic visit to Jerusalem in 1977 and the ensuing peace agreement with Israel, could and should have also been the beginning of the end of the Arab-Israeli conflict. However, from the outset it lacked a number of key ingredients that are still absent, preventing this peace agreement, landmark as it was, from translating into fully-fledged relations between the two neighbouring countries, or a regional turning point.
Without belittling the momentous achievement of bringing an end to the state of war between these two major regional powers, their relations since then are based on a commonality of strategic interests, without bringing together the people of both countries to overcome decades of enmity.
The most obvious element missing from the Camp David accords was a genuine effort to also address the Palestinian issue. This has been a source of much anger in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world ever since. Palestinians and their plight were an ‘inconvenience’ for President Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in the process of negotiating peace between their two countries.
They feared that by adding the Palestinian issue they would never be able to resolve their differences. By paying no more than lip service to the right of Palestinians for self-determination in the Camp David accords, Israel and Egypt have sown the seeds of a cold and incomplete peace.
Furthermore, they failed to adequately address the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict. This approach might have paid a short-term dividend, but it has contributed to many years of strife between the Israelis and Palestinians. It has also made it harder to bring many ordinary Egyptians and the rest of the Arab world on board of the peace journey.
The cold peace
Admittedly, this was not the only reason for the cold peace between Israel and Egypt. There were also elements in Egypt among the political and intellectual elite, the media and the Islamist movement, that never came to terms with a separate peace with the Jewish state. A significant number of them feared Egyptian isolation in the Arab world and for its loss of a leadership role within the region. Others simply could not accept Israel as an integral part of the Middle East, and sadly aside from legitimate criticism of Israeli policies, also appeared in some quarters of the media espousing anti-Semitic expressions.
Yet, Israeli behavior since peace was reached with Egypt, put severe strains on diplomatic relations between the two countries for a very long time. The oppressive occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, and the two wars in Lebanon, for instance, constantly threatened the ability of Egypt to maintain peace with Israel, and made it almost impossible for Egyptian-Israeli relations to go beyond a rather cold peace. Despite all of the above-mentioned pitfalls, the peace agreement has held and strategic cooperation became even closer, especially following the ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood from power by the military in July of 2013.
Strategic cooperation between Egypt and Israel since General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi became president has reached new heights. Both governments in Cairo and Jerusalem share a common uncompromising approach to everything they perceive as militant Islam. The need to contain emerging Jihadist structures in the Sinai Peninsula, and restore law and order there became an imperative for both governments, as it poses a danger to both.
The oppressive occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, and the two wars in Lebanon, constantly threatened Egypt's ability to maintain peace with Israel, and impossible for the relations to go beyond a rather cold peaceYossi Mekelberg
There is a real fear that ISIS-type organisations are taking hold in the lawless environment of the Sinai, which if uncontained might spiral out of control. Moreover, both Israeli and Egyptian governments see the Hamas movement as a sworn enemy.
For Israel, it is in the context of the conflict with the Palestinians, especially Gaza, and for Egypt it is related to the antagonism towards the Muslim Brotherhood and the chaotic situation in the Sinai. Consequently, both countries have tightened the blockade on Gaza, preventing the smuggling of weapons and depriving the Hamas from revenue. Tragically and unacceptably this is also deepening the misery of the Gazan people’s daily life.
For the foreseeable future, as Egypt and Israel’s neighboring countries are enduring deep turmoil and militant Islam poses a threat, both countries prioritise mutual collaboration to ward off these threats adversely affecting their countries. Regrettably, as ever, they are doing so using solely military means, and not dealing with the root causes of the rise of this phenomenon.
In the meantime they also neglect the opening of a comprehensive dialog between the societies, which will put more substance into their relations beyond the military one. Until then the peace is left to survive on very thin ice.
Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.