The Israeli-Egyptian warm peace
Egypt cannot afford to open two costly confrontational fronts, one with Israel and another with terror groups.
2017/02/19 Issue: 94 Page: 9
Observers of Israeli- Egyptian relations cannot fail to notice that those engagements have reached a safe zone. Cooperation between the countries is increasing, warming a few degrees and making previous talk about a cold peace obsolete.
Closer cooperation between Israel and Egypt is nowhere clearer than in the security domain. Israel did not object to Egyptian Army movements in recent years in the Sinai, although the Camp David Accords of 1978 placed restrictions on military operations there. Egyptian Air Force planes have, on several occasions, transgressed Israeli air space while conducting bombing operations against extremist militia positions in the Sinai and Tel Aviv observed a solemn silence about the matter.
It must be said that protesting the transgressions would have embarrassed Israel. Rumours indicate that Israel is rather satisfied to see Egyptian security forces kept on their toes by terrorist groups.
The Egyptian side appreciates the relative freedom to act in Sinai and is quite happy to move forward with the Israeli side towards agreeing on how to fix the border between them. So, when terrorists launched a missile attack on the Israeli port of Elat, it was meant to ruin relations between Egypt and Israel. Both sides, however, understood the game being played and ignored the incident.
Another sign of the warming relations between Egypt and Israel concerns Cairo’s silence regarding the new Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. Last December, Egypt withdrew its backing for UN Security Council Resolution 2334, which condemned Israeli settlement building, calling it a violation of international law. Egypt later voted in favour of the resolution after it had been introduced by other countries.
Usually, Egypt would raise a row in similar circumstances but now soft diplomacy towards Israel seems to be the order of the day to the point that it has been said that standing up to Israel is no longer among Cairo’s priorities.
In truth, however, there are a number of local and regional constraints that explain the Egyptian regime’s mellowness towards Israel, with the tense and difficult economic and security situation in Egypt at the top of the list. Then there are the terrorist groups in Sinai. The Egyptian regime cannot afford to open two costly confrontational fronts, one with Israel and another in battling the terror groups.
Patience and even cooperation with Israel were the logical choices given Egypt’s internal circumstances. Regionally, Egyptian leaders have learnt from mistakes not to open multiple fronts of confrontation. The regional circumstances are frankly more favourable to Israel than to Egypt. The Syrian front with Israel has almost collapsed. Iraq is no longer an Arab player. Wars in Yemen and Libya are weakening any potential Arab front with Israel. These factors make it unwise for Egypt to get mixed up in a conflict with Israel.
The general tendency in the region is towards more regional cooperation. The powerful countries prefer regional cooperation and are looking for opportunities to include Israel in cooperation schemes. This means that antagonising Israel becomes risky. This conclusion was well understood by all regional powers, both Arab and non-Arab, that hurried to weave secret or open relations with Tel Aviv.
Obviously, the Egyptian government’s attitude towards Israel benefited from the absence of pressure from the Egyptian public to act otherwise. This was not the case under Hosni Mubarak’s regime. Strong public opposition to normalising relations with Israel kept the cold peace in place.
The path Israeli-Egyptian relations is taking is opposite of Egypt’s overall strategic orientation. In the Egyptian military dogma, Israel is a constant and real enemy and must always be monitored. Any necessary momentary cooperation and coordination with it is just that — momentary.