Egyptian national security at the heart of rapprochement with Israel

Since President Sisi took power in Egypt, relations between Egypt and Israel have been excellent

Raghida Dergham
Raghida Dergham
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Egypt, finding itself beleaguered by tragedy, debt, unrest, and political isolation, and a demographic emergency, with a population of 90 million people, has decided that its interest requires restoring its regional role through the Palestinian-Israeli gateway, especially after the Turkish-Israeli reconciliation that gave Ankara a stronger say in Gaza via Hamas, directly on the border with Egypt. Thus the Egyptian foreign minister Sameh Shukri flew to Jerusalem this week, meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who invited him to dinner in his home. The sudden but significant visit drew a lot of criticism.

Since President Sisi took power in Egypt, relations between Egypt and Israel have been excellent. Informed US sources even say they are at an unprecedented level of coordination, surpassing even what existed under former president Mubarak. According to reports following Shukri’s visit, preparations are underway for a visit by Netanyahu to Cairo, for the first time. The reasons behind Egyptian-Israeli rapprochement are many, and include partnership in fighting terrorism in Sinai.

However, the prospects for an agreement on the Palestinian question are very slim, bearing in mind that President Sisi wants to revive the Arab Peace Initiative adopted by the Beirut Arab League Summit more than a decade ago; and that Netanyahu wants to amend this initiative to remove the clauses related to withdrawal to the borders of 1967 and the fate of Jerusalem. This raises questions about what Netanyahu intends to bring with him to Cairo, if the visit takes place.

Opponents of the Egyptian demarche, which they say is cosmetic, question the timing of the visit and the rapprochement, at a time when the campaign to boycott Israel is growing and putting pressure on Netanyahu to accept the two-state solution, end the occupation, and stop settlement building. Supporters of the Egyptian efforts, which have been coordinated with the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, cite the benefits of saving and supporting the Palestinian Authority at a time when it has been practically excluded at the decision of Turkey-Israel-Hamas, three parties that converge when it comes to weakening and paralyzing the Palestinian Authority.

They also argue that with the systematic retreat of major powers and the UN represented by the Quartet, and with the French initiative emptied of its substance at the Security Council, it was necessary for an Arab player with Egypt’s weight to make a move to ensure Arabs retain their role in the Palestinian issue and stop the nearly irreversible loss of further Palestinian land.

The Arab summit convening in Mauritania next week will not issue a resolution at the level of the peace initiative on the Palestinian issue like the Beirut summit. Yet the summit must not be an occasion to paper over challenges, conflicts, and crises. The Arab region is in crisis, and the regional unrest is serious and dangerous. Europe is busy with Brexit and who might be next in leaving the European Union and its very fate.

If Netanyahu believes his country is an oasis of stability in a desert of turbulence in the Middle East, perhaps the Israeli people should alert him to the fact that this is a just a mirage.

Raghida Dergham

The US is preoccupied with its elections, fear of terrorism, and racial tensions. Russia is feigning greatness while suffering severe economic problems, and is drowning in a war with radical Islamism even as it is surrounded by five Muslim-majority republics. Turkey is stumbling. Iran is correcting course albeit slowly, as it sets eyes on the regional and international maps, reading adverse developments despite its gains in Iraq and Syria.

Egypt looked at its surroundings and international equations, and judged that rapprochement with Israel at this juncture serves its interests, at least in the point of view of President Sisi’s administration. The official stated reasons are that Egypt is concerned by the failure of the Quartet, and decided to act by proposing an initiative to circumvent failure. Moreover, Cairo judged that the French initiative for an international peace conference on Palestine will not lead to any results as long as the US is merely present rather than leading or sponsoring such a conference.

Egyptian diplomacy has considered the French initiative to be a ploy, especially as it hijacked all efforts at the Security Council, including a draft resolution that was meant to reaffirm the two-state solution and the implementation of resolution 242, bearing in mind that it was the implementation of that resolution that had led to serious negotiations between Egypt and Jordan, and Israel and the eventual peace treaties.

Sisi’s proposals were not successful because they appeared incoherent, aimed at obstruction or one-upmanship. He spoke of a “warm peace” with Israel without offering anything specific about the requirements and foundations for it. He sent his FM to Jerusalem, which Egypt refuses to recognize as the capital of Israel, drawing ire as Shukri’s actions in Jerusalem was seen as undermining “national red lines”.

He objected to the failure of the international community to act in the UN Security Council, but he deliberately ignored the fact that Egypt’s membership of the council allows him to take serious action if he truly wished so, proposing coherent and important initiatives. He bypassed the issue of settlement at a time when the momentum for boycott in Europe and elsewhere against Israeli settlement policy was beginning to reach critical mass. Sisi moved to normalize relations with Israel on the basis of reviving Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, but his actions have not followed a roadmap or a mechanism.

Therefore, the Egyptian president’s calculation must be domestic in the most part, as well as related to ties with neighboring countries and the United States. The coordination of the visit with the Palestinian Authority is significant. But it is also true that the motive of Egypt’s concerted efforts was Turkey’s rapprochement with Israel and the mandate Hamas gave to Ankara to sponsor its interests on the border with Egypt. This touched on an issue that is at the heart of Egyptian national interest and thus had to be confronted or challenged, with an eye trained on the relationship between Turkey and Hamas, and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the implications for the Sisi administration.

The Egyptian factors related to national security that led to partnership with Israel include a security one related to the growth of terrorism in Sinai. According to observers familiar with the issue, there is growing Egyptian-Israeli coordination on this front, including in surveillance and intelligence, to hunt down terrorists. This is of paramount importance to the Egyptian government, which finds itself threatened in its soft underbelly in Sinai as well as Gaza. In this context, Cairo has felt it necessary to try to coax Israel away from Turkey and Hamas.

The other consideration behind Egyptian-Israeli rapprochement is that Cairo believes the road to Washington’s heart goes through Israel and the latter’s influence on Congress and the media in the US, both of which are primed to criticize Sisi administration’s violations of human rights, freedom of expression, and the freedom of the press. There is growing resentment against Egypt’s deportation and prosecution of journalists, and repression and detention of dissidents and critics. According to one expert on Egyptian Sisi-era politics, Cairo sees Israel as a potential defender of Egypt in the US arena.

All this does not invalidate the fact that Egypt has an honest desire to see a breakthrough in the Palestinian-Israeli track, that would not be at the expense of the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian people. Egypt can be a sponsor of inter-Palestinian relations if Israel allows it to do so, which requires for Netanyahu to forgo the de-facto partnership with Turkey and Hamas behind it, and the ball is in his court now.

Egypt is able to be the main engine in the revival of Arab-Israeli negotiations leading up to a comprehensive peace that would save Israel itself from its current siege mentality. And again, the ball is in Netanyahu’s court. If Netanyahu believes his country is an oasis of stability in a desert of turbulence in the Middle East, perhaps the Israeli people should alert him to the fact that this is a just a mirage. Indeed, Israel in the long run can never be a normal country in the Middle East if its survival depends on occupation, unrest, and instability.

President Sisi will not be able to meet the demands of the Israeli prime minister, if the latter exaggerates the amendments he demands to the Arab Peace Initiative, by asking for removing the clause of an Israeli withdrawal to the borders of 1967, with a willingness to adapt to the requirements of the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations such as land swaps. Sisi will not be able to fulfill Netanyahu’s dream of removing Jerusalem from the initiative, no matter how many visits Egyptian officials make to Jerusalem. Sisi will not give Netanyahu a chance to amend the initiative, which offers Arab recognition of Israel if Netanyahu proves his desire for peace and the two-state solution. But if Netanyahu is just playing games, then both leaders are in a quandary.

Egypt is right in trying to stop the farce of the Quartet, which, represented by none other than Tony Blair until recently, continues to stoop lower and lower. Its latest report was a scandalous testimony of its bankruptcy, as it described settlements as an obstacle to negotiations, while international resolutions say settlements are illegal and illegitimate, and while settlement policy imposes a fair accompli after the other severely undermining the two-state solution. Civil society’s campaign to boycott Israel as long as it continues its settlements is the cry of a strong conscience in the face of the moral failure of the Quartet and its members, the US, Russia, EU, and UN.

But where is the Arab strategy to address this? What Arab strategy is there to deal with Israel’s fait accompli under Netanyahu, as he proceeds to efface any remaining Palestinian rights? Yes, inter-Palestinian divisions are responsible for a large part of the current situation, but that does not negate Arab and international responsibility.

Israel may appear today reassured while the region gets torn apart. However, this anomalous situation will not bring long-term reassurance for Israel, despite what Netanyahu might think. Here, there is a responsibility that must be shouldered by the Israeli people, who boast of their democratic rights and the ability to correct course.

For its part, Iran too is exposing itself and its claims that Palestine is a priority. Like Turkey, Iran uses the Palestinian issue to further its own agenda, and exploits supposed Arab absence on the Palestinian issue.

This cedes the ground to ISIS, al-Qaeda and similar groups that have destabilized the Arab region and contributed to its wholesale destruction and fragmentation. These groups are doing a great service to Turkey, Iran, and Israel at the expense of the Arab countries and their people.

If the Arab summit in Mauritania finds itself ready to think seriously about the state of the Arab region and its surroundings, then it must lead the Arabs to stop burying their heads in the sand. The Arabs, led by Egypt, must stop papering over reality and the fateful actions it requires them to do.

This article was first published in Al-Hayat on Jul. 15, 2016 and translated by Karim Traboulsi.
Raghida Dergham is Columnist, Senior Diplomatic Correspondent, and New York Bureau Chief for the London-based Al Hayat newspaper since 1989. She is dean of the international media at the United Nations. Dergham is Founder and Executive Chairman of Beirut Institute, an indigenous, independent, inter-generational think tank for the Arab region with a global reach. An authority on strategic international relations, Dergham is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and an Honorary Fellow at the Foreign Policy Association. She served on the International Media Council of the World Economic Forum, and is a member of the Development Advisory Committee of the IAP- the Global Network of Science Academies. She can be reached on Twitter @RaghidaDergham

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