Israel and Egypt: A Strategic Axis in the Regional Landscape?


The recent violent escalation in Gaza, that led to the resignation of the Israeli minister of defense and to a public uproar against the government’s handling of the Hamas movement, have once more emphasized Egypt’s deep involvement in attempts to mediate and resolve conflicts between Israel and its Palestinian neighbors in the West bank and Gaza. Egypt’s active role is not limited to compliance with the disputants needs, but is an important component in its pro-active policy and its self-perception as a necessary mediator and negotiator that promotes regional stability.

The consequences of the “Arab Shaking” have yet to end. Each state that experienced these “winds of change”, withstands the emerging regional and international reality differently, based on the way it defines its current position. Egypt under a-Sisi, and in the post-Mursi era, has re-defined its aims and mode of action. The newly created Egyptian national security outlook prioritized two main objectives: to restore (both domestic and regional) security and to strengthen the Egyptian economy.

Regarding the security objective, as soon as Egypt defined “terrorism” (both domestic and international) as its biggest threat, it made sure to label the Muslin Brotherhood movement a terror organization and carried out severe measures against its members. Furthermore, the Egyptian authorities have occasionally accused the Hamas of carrying out terror attacks in cooperation with the Muslim Brotherhood and intermittently with ISIS. No wonder that every now and then news surrounding military cooperation between Egypt and Israel battling ISIS in the Sinai Peninsula appear in the media.

In addition to this, the Iranian policy in the Middle East is perceived by Egypt as a threat (and so by Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel and the United Arab Emirates). Both Turkey and Qatar are considered Egypt’s consistent and uncompromising rivals, due to their support for the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and based on their membership in the Middle Eastern axis opposing Egypt. A new reality has evolved that we have never seen before, in which the regional interests of Israel and Egypt, as well as those of other Arab states, have intertwined.

The long-standing Egyptian policy that strives to resolve the Palestinian issue relies, even to this day, on its ability to engage in what is happening in the Gaza strip. Egypt wishes to promote steps of reconciliation within the Palestinian wing itself (between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority), and to serve as a mediator between the Palestinians as well as between the Palestinians and Israel. All actors in this equation view Egypt as a trustworthy and influential actor. In this way, Egypt acts as the most significant mediator that negotiates understandings between Israel and Hamas, and that supports Israeli-Palestinian dialogue. Egypt is expected to continue playing such a role in the future as well.

The meeting between Israel and Egypt’s leaders that took place during the 2018 UN General Assembly, was not the first meeting between Netanyahu and a-Sisi this past year. Among the issues discussed by the two leaders were the situation in Gaza, the Palestinian issue, security matters, regional developments and bilateral issues. The meeting reflected rather accurately the cooperative relations between the two countries over the past four years.

The second objective put forward by the Egyptian leadership has been to stabilize the economy. A strong sense of security and a steady economy may turn Egypt into a source for regional stability. This leads Egypt to be increasingly interested in promoting economic and trade cooperation with Israel. Egypt hold an important strategic location, on the maritime route from the Indian ocean through the Bab al-Mandeb strait, and toward the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean Sea. Therefore, the interest in Egypt’s stabilization is not limited to regional actors alone, but is also eminent for the US, the EU, Russia, India, and China. This generates international interest in supporting Israeli-Egyptian cooperation as a keystone for enhancing regional stability.

Broader cooperation between Israel and Egypt in the security and-political spheres may stimulate their economic relations and therefore work for the benefit of both countries. Nevertheless, there is still a significant gap between the high level of strategic cooperation between Israel and Egypt, and their much lower level of civil cooperation. The number of Israelis touring Egypt is stable but rather low. Trade between the countries is taking place but to a limited extent, and the same is true regarding the field of agriculture, where there is far greater potential for cooperation than what is taking place today (at least in comparison to cooperation in the 1990’s). In addition to that, there is potential for Egypt to utilize technologies such as solar energy and water desalination, areas of which are widely known as Israel’s field of expertise, both as a manufacturer and as an implementer.

The field of energy, and in particular the production and marketing of natural gas, plays a central role in the Israeli-Egyptian economic and trade cooperation. Moreover, both countries can cooperate in traditional industry fields, in unique qualified industrial zones (QIZ, a three-way agreement that allows the export of free trade Egyptian goods to the US, in the condition they hold a certain percent of Israeli components), in agriculture, tourism and more. Such cooperation can promote both Israel’s and Egypt’s economies, and have a positive economic impact on the broader region.

The announcement made by the Israeli company “Delek Drilling” that it will purchase (together with the Noble Energy and East Gas companies) the Egyptian EMG company is a step towards achieving these goals. The natural gas pipeline owned by EMG connects Israel and Egypt, and will deliver natural gas from the “Tamar” and “Leviathan” reservoirs to Egypt. This is considered to be a milestone in transforming Egypt into a regional energy hub, as a major importer and as an exporter based on its liquefying gas facilities. According to Israel’s Minister of Energy Yuval Steinitz, the rehabilitation of the Israeli-Egyptian natural gas pipeline, along with the construction of a Jordanian-Israeli pipeline, creates a regional foundation between the “peace countries”. It is rare to have a joint infrastructure project with geo-political significance take shape between Israel and its neighbors.

The positive nature of Israel-Egypt ties in recent years, together with evolving regional developments in the Middle East, Egypt’s role in mediating between Israel and the Palestinians, and the steps taken by Egypt to thaw the “cold” peace with Israel, may all point to the existence of an opportunity for further advancement in ties between two strategic partners in the region – Egypt and Israel.

Dr. Haim Koren, a task-team member at Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, served as the Israeli Ambassador to Egypt between the years 2014 and 2016. This article is based on a research on Israel-Egypt relations, written as part of Mitvim Institute’s project on the unfulfilled potential of Israel’s relations with Arab countries.

(originally published in the Jerusalem Post)

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