The Importance of the Egyptian-Israeli Relationship
Shoe beatings and the dismissal of an Egyptian Member of Parliament captured headlines throughout the Middle East in the last week of February 2016. This incident proves it remains taboo for Egyptians to engage in friendly relations with Israelis, despite almost four decades of official bilateral engagement. In addition, this incident underscores a missed opportunity to establish a strong and lasting relationship that would benefit both countries.
In February, the Egyptian Member of Parliament (MP) Tawfik Okasha was received in the Egyptian parliament with shoe beatings, considered one of the most denigrating forms of humiliation in Arab culture, for having met with the Israeli ambassador stationed in Cairo. As if the humiliation was not punishment enough, MP Tawfik Okasha has also been banned from the Egyptian parliament for five years. Israeli ambassador Haim Koren explained that he has received numerous visitors at the embassy, but most are kept secret because these Egyptians who hold key positions in the Egyptian society know that it is seen as treason to interact with the state of Israel.
The Jewish state has signed only two peace treaties with its surrounding neighboring countries, namely Jordan and Egypt. The latter’s President Anwar Sadat was involved in establishing friendly relations with Israel at the end of the 1970’s, which many believe led to his assassination in 1981 by Egyptian Islamic Jihadi members. Ever since the peace treaty was signed, the relations between Israel and Egypt have been cold, experiencing a severe deterioration in 2012 after Mohamed Morsi from the Muslim Brotherhood was elected president of Egypt. As Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a man with military background, came to power in 2013, there has been an improvement in relations with Israel as well as security cooperation on the Sinai Peninsula as a result of increased activity by several jihadi groups.
Considering the instability of today’s Middle East, both Israel and Egypt are under constant threat from terror groups that are contemplating attacks. Suspicions that Hamas and ISIS are currently working together by digging tunnels from Sinai to the Gaza Strip, to enable the transportation of weapons, cause fear of new terror attacks on Sinai or a new war in Israel. It would be in Egypt and Israel’s interest to increase their current defense cooperation in order to prevent any spread of ISIS militant activities. Sinai has long been a free area for any terror groups to plan and carry out activities, due to the lack of Egyptian military control over the peninsula. This ongoing activity causes Israeli borders with Sinai to remain unsafe and become a target of terrorist attacks. Therefore, it would be beneficial for Egypt and Israel to develop closer security ties in order to strengthen counter-terrorist operations, rather than each tackling these issues on their own. Israel could, for instance, help Egypt create a strong military presence on Sinai by providing intelligence and weapons to prevent the prosperity of terror organizations. At the moment, Israel has supported Egypt’s employment of an increased number of troops at the Sinai. These initiatives could lead to a decrease in terrorist activity on the peninsula, thus ensuring safer borders for both countries.
In addition, with two of the region’s superpowers, Iran and Saudi Arabia, in tense disputes, the need for a counterbalance presents Israel and Egypt as a possible alternative. Considering Iran’s missile tests in March as well as the alleged speculations about the nuclear program being developed by the Shiite state, Iran has definitely become a state other Middle Eastern countries should take seriously. Iran will most likely not attack, because the leadership knows it will lead to a full-scale war in the Middle East, with the United States siding against them. Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia’s execution of Shiite clerics at the beginning of the year showed how close the two states came to engaging in war. An openly strong Egyptian-Israeli military alliance might prevent them from accidentally attacking each other, as the Iranians and Saudis would know the consequences that would arise from such an escalation.
Realistically, it will take time for Egypt and Israel to build up trust in each other considering the wars fought between them. Although there would be reason to doubt the sincerity of Egypt’s loyalty to Israel, mostly because an Arab country that sides with the Jewish state against any fellow Arab state would be despised throughout the Middle East, such an unlikely alliance would contribute to stabilize the region. If Egypt builds up its military capacity, combined with Israel’s military strength and American support, there is a strong counter-coalition to Iran’s nuclear potential. Moreover, Israel would be skeptical to have a closer relationship with Egypt out of fear that the latter would turn its back on the first in favor of the Arab states. Before the peace agreement between the two countries, Egypt and Israel were engaged in several bloody wars. It is therefore understandable that there is suspicion on both sides.
It is quite unfortunate that Egypt has not been willing to openly cooperate with Israel, because both countries would benefit in the long run in terms of economy and security from having friendly and warm relations, despite the opposition from the Arab neighbors in the Middle East. However, it is known that private businesses and enterprises from both countries are working together in secret, meaning that there is a certain willingness on citizens’ parts to have a professional relationship in order to gain from it. When Egyptians tend to show their hatred toward Israel in general and their support for the Palestinians, it is easy to believe that there will never be proper peace between the two neighboring countries. Nevertheless, it gives hope to those who would like to see a prospering Egyptian-Israeli relationship when influential people like MP Okasha are brave enough to show their willingness to cooperate with Israel.
Elisabet Meltvik is a staff writer for Charged Affairs. She is master’s student at the University of Haifa in Israel, with experience in publishing and as a free-lance reporter. She specializes on the Israel-Palestine conflict and Middle East relations.
Image: Israel-Egypt border (credit: Israeli National Photo Collection)