During the past sixty years, Israel’s relationship with Egypt completed a full cycle. In the late 1950’s in the aftermath of two wars with Egypt and Gamal Abdel Nasser leading the revolutionary pan Arab camp, it was Israel’s most formidable and implacable Arab enemy. Israel’s founding father, David Ben Gurion, saw no hope of breaking the wall of Arab hostility led by Egypt and decided to leap frog over it by formulating and implementing a policy known as “the alliance with the periphery.” Turkey, the Shah’s Iran, and Ethiopia shared Israel’s hostility to both Nasser’s Egypt and his Soviet patrons and these countries with American encouragement and partial participation collaborated and coordinated against their common foes. Sixty years later, the Middle Eastern regional arena is very different. Iran is ruled by the Ayatollahs and is a revisionist power, Turkey under Erdogan marches to its own drum and Ethiopia is not a player in Middle Eastern regional politics. More importantly, Israel and Egypt have been at peace since 1979 and in recent years have built a close cooperative relationship. This is not an isolated development but part of a broader rapprochement between Israel and a group of pragmatic Sunni Arab states. These states, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, other Gulf countries and Morocco are primarily concerned with Iran and with jihadi Islam and regard Israel as a partner rather than an enemy. Their collaboration with Israel is still constrained by the lingering Palestinian-Israeli conflict and by popular and Islamist opposition to Israel and is carried out covertly rather than openly. These new developments and relationships are an important dimension of Middle Eastern politics as the Trump Administration is formulating its policy toward the region.
The turning point in Israel’s relationship with Egypt occurred in 1977 when Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat transformed the post 1973 war diplomacy into a fully-fledged peace negotiation. A peace treaty was signed in March 1979. Israel and Egypt ceased to be enemies and this relationship with Egypt became a corner stone of Israel’s national security. But peace between the two countries remained frosty. The failure to implement the Palestinian part of the peace treaty, a lingering sense of rivalry over regional hegemony and Islamist and post Nasserite popular hostility in Egypt, led Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarak, to limit the relationship with Israel and keep it in a “cold” state. This did not change even as Israel and the PLO signed the Oslo Accords in 1993. Egypt and Mubarak did facilitate the new Israeli-Palestinian relationship, but they refused to allow a full normalization of the Egyptian-Israeli relationship. In fact, as Israel and the PLO made peace, Egyptian fears of Israeli hegemony in the region were exacerbated. One major irritant in the relationship was Egyptian opposition to Israel’s policy of nuclear ambiguity. When Hamas took over the Gaza Strip, built an arsenal of rockets with Iranian help and launched a cycle of violence with Israel, Egypt’s cooperation with Israel in blocking the smuggling of weapons from the Sinai remained limited. Mubarak and his regime were not fond of Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, but their willingness to block the smuggling through these underground tunnels was limited by political calculus and inefficiency.
Unhappy as Israel was with Mubarak’s policy of cold peace, it was alarmed by his fall in 2011, one of the major events of The Arab Spring. Israel worried about the state and future of the peaceful relationship with Egypt particularly when Muhammad Morsi, a leader of The Muslim Brotherhood, was elected president. The movement and Morsi specifically had been opposed to and critical of the peace treaty with Israel. Morsi refrained from direct contact with Israel and preferred it be conducted through the military, but he was careful not to undermine the peace treaty during his short tenure. Israel, in any event, was relieved when he was replaced by General Sisi.
Israel’s relationship with Sisi’s Egypt has been shaped by several forces at work, beginning with the jihadist challenge in the Sinai Peninsula. After decades of neglect by the government in Cairo, the penetration of Bedouin society in the Sinai by radical jihadist elements has led to a radicalization of the Bedouin population and pitted it against the regime. The regime’s effort to crush the opposition has so far met with only partial success. The jihadists in the Sinai have launched several attacks against Israel but the brunt of their campaign is directed at the Egyptian army. The regime is also hard pressed to deal with Islamist opposition in Egypt proper, in addition to the jihadist opposition in the Sinai. Israel has been lending the Egyptian army significant support. It is motivated by its interest in the regime’s success and survival, by obvious reluctance to see jihadist entrenchment on its Southern border and by its awareness of the collaboration of Hamas and more radical groups in the Gaza Strip with the Sinai jihadists. This collaboration as well as the need to respond to Israel’s assistance in the Sinai have led Sisi’s regime to act more forcefully and effectively against the tunnels used by the smuggling industry from the Sinai into the Gaza Strip (and occasionally in the other direction).Recently a fresh dialogue was started between Egypt and Hamas but so far it has not seriously affected the status quo.
Egypt and Israel have shared the view that Iran’s quest for regional hegemony and its support of revisionist elements in the region are the most significant threat to their respective national security interests. An even more important role in drawing them closer was common criticism of the Obama Administration’s policies in the Middle East. Netanyahu and Obama disagreed and fought over the Palestinian issue and over the nuclear deal with Iran. Sisi resented the fact that Obama and his administration viewed Morsi as a democratically elected ruler and Sisi’s coming to power as illegitimate. Sisi and many of his military colleagues suspected that Obama viewed the Muslim Brotherhood as a positive force, resented his treatment of Mubarak and suspected that he was seeking a modus vivendi with Iran in the region. Some of these sentiments were shared by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.
As has been mentioned above, Egypt and its Sunni partners are willing to collaborate with Israel discreetly, but not publicly, as long as there is no significant progress in Israeli- Palestinian relations. Many Israelis, right wingers in particular, tend to argue that the path to a resolution or at least amelioration of the Israeli-Palestinian issues lies through a regional approach. According to this view, Israel would begin by negotiating with the Sunni Arab states. These states, so the argument goes, are more flexible than the Palestinians and can bring additional assets into the negotiations. What the advocates of this approach in Israel sometimes forget is that the regional approach is not an escape route from the concessions that any progress with the Palestinians will require. Indeed, it has recently been revealed that in 2016 a summit was held in Aqaba, Jordan attended by the US (through Secretary of State Kerry), Israel, Jordan and Egypt. But when the chips were down it turned out that Netanyahu was not willing to take the necessary steps. When Netanyahu met with President Trump in February 2017 much was said about a new regional approach to the Palestinian issue, but it was not quite clear what both leaders meant when they used that term.
Middle Eastern diplomacy is now on hold, waiting for the Trump Administration to decide on its own Middle East policy. One major issue concerns Washington’s relationship with Moscow. Will the Trump Administration seek a grand bargain with Russia, and if so, what would it mean for the Middle East? The Syrian crisis, if not the pivotal issue in the region, would be a major component in such a deal. Would Russia be willing to remove its support from Bashar al-Assad? Not likely. If Trump agrees to a deal predicated on Assad staying in power, what impact would it have on Washington’s relationship with its traditional allies? And how could Trump’s current enmity toward Iran be reconciled with Moscow’s partnership with Teheran?
More broadly, the US needs to decide whether it wants to return fully to the Middle East by being willing to allocate resources, engage troops and rebuild the camp of its friends and allies. Currently, some of them are dubious of Washington’s good will and stamina and others are pursuing different paths. Turkey, a major regional power, is a member of NATO but does not quite conduct itself as a fully-fledged ally. Can a new US policy rebuild a pragmatic camp built of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, other Gulf states, Turkey and Israel? If it decides to do so, Egypt will have to play an important role in that bloc. From Jerusalem’s perspective the construction of such a bloc and Egypt’s role in it would be seen as very desirable developments.