Warming Up: Regional Tensions Thawing the Cold Israel–Egypt Peace

July 26, 2016

by: Joshua Spurlock, The Mideast Update

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Ever since the days of the patriarch Abraham thousands of years ago, Israel and Egypt have had a complicated relationship. At times, they have been deadly enemies—at times they have been allies. And in the last three dozen years, they have been at peace. It is sometimes called a “cold peace”—but recently there have been signs that things are improving. There is still something of a disdain for Israel in much of the Arab world, and that impacts the Israel–Egyptian relationship. But the things Israel and Egypt do have in common have been making headlines. Dr. Ephraim Kam, a senior research fellow at the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), told The Mideast Update that last year saw a “quite significant improvement in the relationship” thanks to some key commonalities. Even another INSS expert who doesn’t see the relationship as improving that much, agrees that Israel and Egypt do have a very important common interest.

Common Enemies

65 Killed in Egypt's Sinai, ISIS Claims Responsibility

ISIS branch in the Sinai (IDFblog.com)

The 1979 peace accord between Israel and Egypt included a critical clause about the territory separating the two nations’ traditional homelands: the Sinai Peninsula. The Sinai, claimed by Egypt and briefly conquered by Israel, was returned to Egyptian control in the peace treaty under the condition that the Egyptians limit their military presence there so as to make it harder to attack Israel in yet another war. But in recent years Israel has been “very flexible” on Egyptian weapons in the Sinai, according to Dr. Oded Eran, a senior research fellow at the INSS. The reason is simple: both nations are now much more afraid of another threat than they are of each other. Dr. Eran, who was not as positive about the improvement in the Israel–Egypt relationship as Dr. Kam, said the governmental relations are still doing well with regard to the sides’ security cooperation against radical Islamic groups in the Sinai, including ISIS (ISIL) and its related offshoots.

It’s easy to see why Islamic terror groups unite Israel and Egypt, especially now. Dr. Eran said that Israel and Egypt share a common concern on “how to prevent the extension and success of these groups in turning the Sinai into a base of operations.” One only needs to look at Iraq and Syria to see ISIS’ empire-building goals and what they can do. Just to the north of the Sinai are more common challenges—Hamas and all the radical groups in Gaza. While still talking, the Egypt–Hamas relationship has been rocky since the current Egyptian government took power from the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013. Israel, meanwhile, has fought multiple wars with Hamas since its takeover of Gaza in 2007.

And both farther away and yet closer still looms Iran. The Islamic Republic, noted Dr. Eran, is a major sponsor of regional terrorism as well as a potential nuclear threat to both Israel and Egypt. Egypt and Iran have long had a testy relationship. And that’s not the only international relationship giving Egypt a good reason to warm up to Israel.

Dr. Ephraim Kam, Deputy Head of the Institute for National Security Studies, and Dr. Çagri Erhan, Vice-President of the Center for Eurasian Strategic Studies (Ankara)

Dr. Ephraim Kam, Institute for National Security Studies (Nato.int)

Common Ally

Israel and Egypt both have an alliance with the United States, but it’s more than just common interests and friendship. To sweeten the 1979 peace deal, the US agreed to give both sides substantial military financial support. However, while Israel, as the purest democracy in the Middle East, has gotten closer and closer to the US, Egypt and the US have had a more strained relationship. When mass popular unrest against the elected members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt turned into a military coup to take over the country, the US responded by withholding military aid from the new Egyptian regime.

Yet that came just as the battle with extremists in the Sinai was heating up, leaving Egypt to fight a terror war with fewer weapons. The US government has since resumed key aid to Egypt, and Dr. Kam said Israel had been one of the voices encouraging the Americans to provide the weapons, including aircraft—a key part of the withheld aid. Israel’s much better relationship with the US makes them a helpful bridge in US–Egypt relations.

Common or Comatose?

Head of Israel Mission to the European Union, H.E. Amb. Oded Eran

Dr. Oded Eran, Institute for National Security Studies (Nato.int)

But it’s not all roses. Dr. Eran pointed out that the civilian relationship between Israel and Egypt is still quite limited, with “very little” done outside the security cooperation between the nations. He even noted opposition to Israel on the “Egyptian street”—(i.e. the general populace). A key reason for this is Arab anti-Israel sentiment, ostensibly over the Palestinian–Israel conflict. It could be argued that this is just another excuse for Arabs to despise Israel’s presence in the Middle East at all. Egyptians weren’t so concerned about Palestinian statehood when they ruled Gaza 60 years ago. Ahram Online reported that Egyptian President, Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, noted the Palestinian issue is a key roadblock to a truly warm relationship with Israel in his recent speech on Israel–Palestinian peace.

Still, it’s not the main issue. Dr. Kam said that Sisi’s push to assist the Israel–Palestinian peace process is likely to fail because the challenges in the Palestinian situation are “too difficult” to overcome, but he doesn’t see it affecting the relationship between Israel and Egypt. Dr. Kam said the “bottom line” is that fighting terrorism is more important than the peace process.

So, even the biggest disagreement between Israel and Egypt simply cannot overshadow the common threats they share. Dr. Kam believes that there are more common interests “than ever before” for Israel and Egypt. And that offers hope that Israel’s oldest regional relationship can be better than ever before, too.

Photo Credit: IDF blog and Institute for National Security Studies

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