Since President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s rise to power in 2014, Israeli-Egyptian ties have been marked by defense-strategic cooperation, based on the shared perception of Iran and radical Islamist terror organizations as a threat, and the common interest in managing the Palestinian issue, in general, and specifically the Gaza arena.
In the permanent tension between ideology and interests, Egypt continues to strive for an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians and seeks to bring about internal Palestinian reconciliation beforehand. Its role as an important mediator between Hamas and Israel is crucial in ending periodic bouts of violence, is in line with Egypt’s standing as an important regional leader and is serving Egypt’s own interests as well.
Israel perceives its peace with Egypt as a highly important asset. Four decades of peace have proven that it is resistant to changes and shock waves. The peace also provides a potential platform for strategic cooperation. Relations between Israel and Egypt are characterized as a “cold peace,” an image based on the fact that as long as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains unresolved, Egypt is unable to progress to full normalization with Israel despite crucial shared interests. Although this position has become somewhat muted in light of the growing defense-strategic cooperation between Israel and the Sunni states in the region, it still dictates the nature and extent of relations.
Israeli-Egyptian links are an asset to the region, especially to the states of the Arab Sunni axis, as well as to the US and other powers. They regard the ties as a boost to regional stability after a period of great upheaval. Throughout 2019, Egypt was a pivotal component in ties between Israel and the Palestinians. It played a central role in all attempts at ceasefires with Hamas, which were also assisted by UN mediation and Qatari funds.
Israel and Egypt both seek to limit Iran’s presence in the Middle East, to advance increased sanctions against it by diplomatic means, and to fight its various proxies. Israel and Egypt also worked, each individually, to limit Turkey’s activity in the Eastern Mediterranean by nurturing alliances in the region. They also mounted campaigns against terror organizations, born of a joint perception of the threat they pose and the required responses. In addition, Israel and Egypt share a similar view of the US role in the region, resulting in Israeli-Egyptian coordination in some fields (such as the Qualified Industrial Zones – QIZ). Along with cooperation on the diplomatic front, 2019 also saw continued security cooperation between Israel and Egypt, which has underpinned relations between them in recent years.
Given the cooperation described above, a high-profile celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Israel-Egypt peace agreement would have been expected in 2019. However, while Israel held academic seminars and various other events, no similar events or ceremonies were conducted in Egypt. Ambassador David Govrin completed his term at the end of July 2019, and Israel currently does not have an ambassador in Cairo. The ambassador-designate’s appointment in October 2018 has not been presented for government approval.
ALONG WITH diplomatic-strategic cooperation, cooperation between Israel and Egypt on energy issues was also prominent in 2019. Significant steps were taken to promote cooperation allowing Egypt, Israel, Cyprus and Greece (and perhaps Lebanon in the future) to form a regional hub of natural gas production as a basis for export to Europe. In January 2019, the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) was launched in Cairo by seven Middle Eastern and European governments, among them Israel and the Palestinian Authority (but without the participation of Turkey and Lebanon).
Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz met with his Egyptian counterpart, Tariq al-Mulla, in full view of the cameras during the launch event. In January, a decision was made to upgrade the EMGF to a recognized international organization, which France asked to join too, and which will include the US, EU and World Bank as observers. Strengthening multilateral cooperation in the Eastern Mediterranean helps boost Israeli-Egyptian ties.
In September, Israel’s state-owned Eilat Ashkelon Pipeline Company signed a contract with the owners of the Egyptian EMG gas pipeline to allow the flow of gas from Israel’s offshore Leviathan and Tamar gas fields to Egypt. The deal is expected to yield the Israeli company an annual commission of NIS 200 million. In addition, a compromise was reached between the Egyptian government and the Israel Electric Corporation, according to which the Egyptians would only pay the IEC $500m. of the $1.76 billion ruled in its favor in international arbitration several years ago. That compromise removed the remaining barriers to the supply of gas from Israel to Egypt, and in January, Israel began exporting gas to Egypt from the Leviathan reservoir. None of the above would have been possible without intensive contacts between the Egyptian and Israeli governments.
Nonetheless, there were no other significant changes in Israel-Egyptian economic cooperation in 2019. The QIZ initiative continued to operate in its current format, as did agricultural projects. Unfortunately, there were no new initiatives in the spheres of solar energy, water desalination or green energy, which could have been very beneficial to the Egyptian economy. No progress was reported in scientific, medical, technological or academic cooperation, either. Nonetheless, there was an increase in the number of Israeli visitors to Egypt, with hundreds of thousands visiting the Sinai Peninsula and a few thousand touring Egypt itself. Positive developments occurred in the other direction, too – with the growth of Egyptian Copt pilgrimages to Israel, especially for the “Great Sabbath” and Easter holy days. Their numbers grew to about 7,000 in 2019 from some 5,000 in 2015.
In addition, as part of Egypt’s efforts to display more tolerant and liberal attitudes, especially toward religious minorities, among them Jews and Copts, progress was made in terms of Egypt’s commitment to refurbish Jewish heritage sites. Cairo’s Bassatine Jewish Cemetery compound was renovated in 2019 with Egyptian government funding, the Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue restoration in Alexandria was completed in January. Ambassadors from many countries were invited to the impressive synagogue ceremony, but the Israeli ambassador was not invited. The Egyptians framed the event as a Jewish rather than Israel-related occasion.
Over four decades of Israeli-Egyptian relations testify to continuity and change. The two states’ mutual interests constitute the basis for their peace, despite the obstacles, disagreements, and tensions over the years. The emerging regional and international reality (especially since Sisi’s rise to power) has increased cooperation but was not successful in thawing Egypt’s cool attitude toward the peace with Israel. A significant obstacle to the relationship continues to be Egyptian avoidance of cultural cooperation. The Mediterranean identity starting to take root in certain Egyptian and Israeli circles may generate a dialogue that will eventually yield more open cultural relations. Social media, which enable a direct and comprehensive discourse with young Egyptians, constitute another arena in which Israel operates and that holds potential for civilian rapprochement. Israel should quickly appoint a permanent ambassador to Egypt, one able to support and lead attempts to bolster ties and take advantage of existing opportunities.
The writer is Israel’s former ambassador to Egypt and South Sudan, a task-team member at Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, and a lecturer at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya. Read a longer version of this article on the Mitvim Institute’s website.