CAIRO — The last two weeks have marked one of the most intense political moments of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's time in office: viral videos from a brash contractor-turned-actor that were the epicenter of corruption and squandered public funds allegations, the popular protests that ensued and the staunch security crackdown that landed over 3,000 people in prison.
And yet through it all, Egypt's president was buoyed by a regional partner's support that outweighed that of his perceived closest allies: Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. It was Israel that stood up for Cairo when criticism of the Egyptian government began to circulate in Western capitals, with Israeli officials insisting on the necessity of supporting Sisi, due to the "major role" he plays in the region, according to two Western diplomats in Cairo who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity.
"Israeli diplomats are always adamant on defending Egypt from criticisms that arise in the world's major capitals, whether they have to do with the human rights situation or the economic situation," says one of the diplomats. "There are certain fixed positions that any Israeli diplomat will adopt during those discussions, which is that supporting Egypt is extremely important because it is fighting terrorism, developing its economic sector, and is staunchly fighting against irregular migration. Hence, it is serving the entire Mediterranean region."
This type of support has become a hallmark of Sisi's presidency, regional and Western diplomats who closely follow the relationship between Cairo and Tel Aviv tell Mada Masr.
This wasn't always the case, however. Sisi's current foreign policy with Israel emerges out of a long history, stemming from the 1979 truce agreement that made Cairo the first Arab country to normalize relations with Israel, passing through the developments of the reign of former President Hosni Mubarak that was not without its moments of discord, and on to what one Egyptian government official called "a period of regression" under the rule of ousted President Mohamed Morsi following over 30 years of post-Camp David stability.
Out of this history emerges what Western diplomats have presented as a "new phase" in Egypt-Israel relations ushered in by the rules of Sisi and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who have a very close relationship, even if they had to cancel their planned meeting a few weeks ago at the 74th session of the UN General Assembly, as they both faced fraught political situations on their respective home fronts.
The Sisi-Netanyahu partnership has fostered Egyptian-Israeli collaboration along economic lines — especially with regard to natural gas deals — and close coordination in fighting militant groups in Sinai. Different Western diplomats quoted Isreali officials as saying that no one has affected a "quantum leap" in Egyptian-Israeli relations the way Sisi has, particularly due to the latter's ruthless pragmatism.
Nonetheless, the situation remains a delicate balancing act for those on both sides. Egyptian officials who spoke to Mada Masr say they have seen the limits of the bilateral support, even if much improved, in areas of concern such as Ethiopia, and add that they are not shy about expressing concern regarding how relations are perceived among regional Arab partners.
Israel considers the Camp David Accords, which Israel signed with Egypt in 1978, as a cornerstone of its position in the region, a Western diplomat tells Mada Masr. Israel favored Mubarak's rule because he openly adhered to the peace treaty — sometimes at a great expense — and personally sought to gradually develop Egypt's relations with Israel.
An Egyptian official who attended unannounced meetings with Sisi and Netanyahu three years ago believes that Mubarak succeeded during his 30-year rule in outwardly normalizing relations between Egypt and Israel. Visits and phone calls between Egyptian and Israeli officials were almost always publicly announced in the same way as correspondence with all other foreign officials. Additionally, Egypt played a crucial role in mediating Israel-Palestinian negotiations and guaranteeing a level of stability in Palestinian territories during all times of tension.
Mubarak used to publicly receive Netanyahu — during his first stint as prime minister in the 90s — and other Israeli prime ministers before and after Netanyahu. He also did not shy away from making humorous yet critical remarks when Israeli journalists would criticize the Egyptian regime's leniency with the tunnels that run below the Gaza-Egypt borders.
During the entirety of his rule, Mubarak vehemently refused to completely close the underground smuggling tunnels between Egypt and Gaza. During press conferences in Sharm el-Sheikh, where top Israeli officials were invited, the former president would often regurgitate that, for underground smuggling to stop, the siege on Gaza has to first be lifted.
Even when Palestinians from Gaza forcibly crossed the border into Egypt after Hamas blew up a portion of the Rafah Border wall in 2008, Mubarak did not close the underground tunnels. According to officials who were in service at the time, Mubarak repeatedly said that exacerbating the pressures on Gazans would likely cause long-term Palestinian hostility toward Egypt. Mubarak also refused to have the Egyptian Armed Forces align their role with the exigencies of Israeli security.
After Morsi was ousted, Egypt's relations with Israel entered a new phase.
After the Jan. 25 revolution in 2011, relations between Egypt and Israel underwent a difficult phase, especially after protesters broke into the Israeli embassy in Giza. At the time, the Egyptian authorities quickly intervened to secure the safe exit of employees inside the embassy. At the same time, the government was under pressure from the public to freeze relations with Israel in 2011, which included halting the export of gas — a fundamental component of Egyptian-Israeli relations that extends beyond the economic aspects.
According to one of the Western diplomats in Cairo, it is easy to understand why Israeli officials were scared as they watched young Egyptian men climb a building to break into the Israeli embassy on Sept. 9, 2011. The location of the embassy had been both publicly known and secure throughout the three decades of Mubarak's rule.
After he became the first democratically elected president in 2012, Mohamed Morsi gave diplomatic assurances to Israel via U.S. mediators that he did not plan to renege on Egypt's side of the peace accords, despite the Muslim Brotherhood's historically known position on Israel and the fact that several members of Parliament at the time were discussing the need to revise some articles in the treaty.
The Egyptian government official — who closely followed the unfolding relations between Israel and Egypt from different posts in the Foreign Ministry and a few embassies — tells Mada Masr that every person who ruled Egypt since the Camp David Accords, including Morsi, has been keen on emphasizing their commitment to the peace treaty to officials from the United States and Israel.
He adds that Morsi sent an explicit message that conveyed this sentiment to both the United States, via his then-foreign relations advisor Essam al-Haddad, and Israel, via different security channels that had been regularly meeting with the Israeli front every six months since Mubarak became president. But according to the Western diplomat, Israel doubted Morsi's assurances, especially in light of the public pressure to freeze relations with Israel.
After Morsi was ousted, Egypt's relations with Israel entered a new phase. The Egyptian government official points out that different circumstances in how and when Mubarak and Sisi came to power affected the way their relationships with Israel played out.
Mubarak came to office against the backdrop of the assassination of Anwar al-Sadat, who was killed two years after signing the peace treaty with Israel.
"The main question we were asked in the Foreign Ministry is whether Egypt was going to still adhere to or abandon the peace treaty," the diplomat explains. "Mubarak came to office after serving as vice-president, and he was revered for his role as the commander of the Air Force in the October War. But even from his early days as president, Mubarak stressed Egypt's adherence to the treaty," he adds.
Sisi's situation is quite different, the official explains. Sisi came to power in a complicated political landscape. Western powers described the unfolding events as a coup d'etat against a democratically elected president, and some governments — including Washington D.C. — nearly took an opposing position vis-a-vis the changes in Egypt.
A certain chemistry
But the mass protests on June 30, 2013 — and the staunch support of regional governments in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv — led to a shift in opinion.
Consequently, the official explains, it was not surprising for Israel to celebrate Sisi and provide him with continuous support on the international level.
"Brave, discerning, and highly capable of strong leadership" is how Netanyahu described Sisi during a reception that was hosted in July by Khaled Azmi, the Egyptian ambassador in Tel Aviv, to celebrate Egypt's independence. President Reuven Rivlin also attended and expressed his desire to strengthen Israel's peaceful relations with Egypt.
This was not the first time that Netanyahu praised Sisi. According to government officials, Netanyahu has frequent phone calls with the Egyptian president, and he always commends the latter for his "determination in fighting terrorism" and "providing new interpretations of Islam."
Netanyahu & Sisi meeting in NYC back in September 2017 — Photo: Egyptian President Office/APA Images/ZUMA
"The two men are aware that they have a direct interest in working directly with one another. They are also aware that bilateral relations between the two countries are highly important and have to be consolidated, given the complications around the Palestinian issue. And of course, there was a certain chemistry between them that we could sense on their first meeting," says an Egyptian official, who attended unannounced meetings between Sisi and Netanyahu three years ago.
According to the same source, the relationship between Netanyahu and Sisi has become so close that neither Egypt's ambassador nor Israel's ambassador can keep up with what the leaders are discussing given the regularity of calls between the duo, not to mention that they meet at least twice a year.
Coordination between Egypt and Israel with regard to Sinai has also increased. As the New York Times revealed in February of 2018, Israel has been carrying out airstrikes against militants in Sinai for years with the knowledge of and coordination with the Egyptian government.
According to Egyptian officials and foreign diplomats, the tight communication between Netanyahu and Sisi proved vital in reaching an agreement on increasing the presence of Egyptian military forces in Sinai, which has now exceeded the limits posited by the Camp David Accords. The two-way communication also facilitated a practical coordination in Sinai that is not solely limited to security and intelligence sharing.
The government official says that while public opinion may be uncomfortable with this relationship — especially with the fact that Israel is now conducting military airstrikes within Egyptian borders — Egypt's cooperation with Israel serves the former's national security interests, as it continues to fight anti-government militant groups in Sinai.
The source adds that coordination also takes place during the regular meetings that now convene every three months, as opposed to six months, as well as bigger meetings that involve regional representatives from Jordan and the United States, for example. And according to a diplomat whose country participates in the international peacekeeping force on the Israeli-Egyptian borders, the coordination between Egypt and Israel has reached an exceptionally effective level that it may no longer be necessary for the peacekeeping force to operate on the borders.
Diplomats and informed Egyptian sources all agree that the two sides have reached multiple understandings with regards to the situation in Sinai — not only when it comes to fighting militant groups. There have been talks about the future of economic cooperation between Egypt and Palestinians in Gaza in the event that some economic projects that were suggested by the United States and some European governments are implemented, especially as those projects might alleviate some of the burdens that Palestinians live under in Gaza.
Sisi has also shifted away from Mubarak's refusal to prevent smuggling into Gaza. According to informed officials, Sisi has committed to implementing an elaborate plan to close all the tunnels that connect Egypt with Gaza. And in the past three years, Egypt has been able to obtain motion detection equipment to locate underground tunnels.
Shared energy interests
Aside from Sinai, economic cooperation between Egypt and Israel is greatly and directly supported by the executive branches at the highest levels. Natural gas is the most prominent example. Israel will begin exporting gas to Egypt to use and sell soon, not to mention the agreement between Egypt, Israel, Cyprus and Greece to create a regional energy hub.
On July 25, Cairo hosted the second Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, which regional participants from Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Cyprus, Greece, Italy and Palestine attended alongside representatives from the United States, European Union, France and the World Bank.
The forum, which first convened last January, is the cornerstone of a national ambition that Sisi has often spoken of in public events. This ambition centers on turning Egyptian into a hub for energy trading in the region, with a focus on liquefied gas.
Egypt has high-quality liquefaction plants that are scheduled to start operating by the end of the year. The plants will liquefy the gas that Egypt will import from Israel via the pipeline that was previously used to export Egyptian gas to Israel for 10 years prior to the revolution in 2011. As one economic source in Egypt told Mada Masr, Egypt will then resell all or some of the Israeli gas abroad, according to the country's domestic needs.
Governmental and non-governmental sources agree that the project is of crucial importance to Egypt. Western and Arab diplomats in Cairo also believe that this project will encourage more investment opportunities at a time when foreign direct investments in Egypt have been receding.
After the forum concluded, Sisi held a reception for the participating ministers and members, in which he reiterated Egypt's commitment to advance this regional cooperation. Toward the end, a group photo was taken of the president and the participating members. And, as per Egyptian protocol, the Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz was assigned a prominent position in the photo. Following that, the Israeli minister and his Egyptian counterpart, Tarek al-Mala, headed to the pyramids for a sightseeing tour, which, as some people who were present stated, was "friendly and full of laughter."
Throughout the past five years, the Egyptian-Israeli economic cooperation also extended to what are known as the Qualifying Industrial Zones (QIZ) — areas established in a 2004 deal between Egypt, Israel, and the United States that gave Egyptian producers customs-and-quota-free access to U.S. markets, provided their products included a percentage of Israeli components — according to an independent economist who spoke to Mada Masr. The number of factories specified in the agreement has increased.
QIZ exports — which are dominated by clothing and textile products — increased by 14.4% during the first seven months of this year, posting a revenue of $587 million compared to $513 million in the same period in 2018.
According to the economic newspaper Al-Borsa, Ashraf al-Rabiey, the QIZ unit head at the Ministry of Trade and Industry, expects that the value of exports to increase to $1 billion by the end of 2019, a value that was reached only once before, in 2011. Another source informed of QIZ matters believes that the scope of QIZ exports will expand to include processed foods in the next few years.
The deal of the century
"The Israeli diplomatic mission in Washington plays a crucial role in standing up to campaigns related to human rights and the social justice situation in Egypt," says an Egyptian government official, who adds that this is done in coordination with different foreign embassies in Washington that support the Egyptian regime, especially the UAE.
The Egyptian embassy often sends requests to the Israeli embassy to "explain issues to some members of Congress," as the source puts it, pointing to Israel's role in helping Egypt continue to receive U.S. military and economic aid. But according to another governmental source, Israel has not responded to specific and "repeated requests from Cairo's highest positions" to take advantage of Israel's close ties with Ethiopia to convince the latter of filling the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam over a period of seven years, instead of just three.
According to the Egyptian authorities, Israel did not make any serious interventions in that regard. "In fact, Israel actually made an arms deal with Ethiopia that was specifically intended to protect the dam (air defense systems missiles) to prevent Egypt from carrying out an offensive against the dam," the source adds. "Carrying out a military offensive against the Renaissance Dam is out of the question. But what is more important is that Israel, which promised to act as a mediator, took advantage of the crisis to sell arms," he further states.
And while Israel and Egypt have close diplomatic interactions in the West, official visits between the two countries have been greatly affected in the last two years. The first Egyptian official points out that with the exception of the Israeli energy minister's visit, Cairo has not received any distinguished Israeli visits since the Jan. 25 revolution.
When Netanyahu called Sisi to congratulate him after the latter's re-election last year, Sisi promised that he will hold a public reception for him in Sharm el-Sheikh. "Netanyahu's visit might possibly happen later this year if Palestinian-Israeli negotiations are resumed, which Egypt greatly supports, or to further discuss bilateral cooperation," the source adds. But given the internal political complications that both men are facing, those plans might fall through.
Netanyahu almost lost his position at the head of the government after failing to secure enough seats to form a coalition government in Israel's second election this year. Nonetheless, Netanyahu has been tapped to take up the seemingly doomed task of forming a coalition government, a development that may not spare the long-tenured head of the Israeli government from corruption charges, for which the pre-indictment meetings will kick off next week.
Cairo has not received any distinguished Israeli visits since the Jan. 25 revolution.
Former diplomats and current Egyptian officials do not shy away from expressing concerns about relations with Israel going too far, especially regarding the contentious "Deal of the Century," a long-delayed U.S. economic development plan for Palestine that is meant to depoliticize occupation. According to them, Egypt should not position itself against the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and Jordan.
The Israeli diplomatic mission in Cairo was also reduced after the break-in attempt in 2011. Following the incident, the embassy relocated from Giza, where it stayed for several decades, to a villa in Maadi. All roads leading to the embassy are closed, and visitors and employees who frequent the area are often thoroughly searched by security personnel.
Haim Koren, the current Israeli ambassador, lives and works along with two diplomats in a quiet, heavily-secured street in Maadi. And it is possible that the embassy will let go of one of the two diplomats quite soon, even as Amira Oron is expected to arrive this fall to serve as Israel's new ambassador in Egypt, according to an Egyptian official who spoke to Mada Masr, adding that the security guards for the diplomatic mission have multiplied in the last two years.
However, the government official explains that the decision to send Oron — who used to manage the Egyptian file in Israel's Foreign Ministry and has close relationships with Egyptian investors who work with Israel — to Egypt is not final, clarifying that the new Israeli ambassador to Egypt will be picked by Netanyahu and Sisi together. It is unlikely that the appointment of the new ambassador will prompt a change in the Egyptian public's silence on the Palestinian issue, given the current stagnation in negotiations between the Israeli government and Palestinian factions.
The Egyptian official says that each moment has its own political and economic requirements. Currently, Cairo needs to maintain good and expansive relations with Israel, even if some aspects of the relationship remain hidden. He adds that this is especially crucial in light of Donald Trump's unrelenting and exceptional support to Israel, which the U.S. president has repeatedly stressed since he came to office — along with promises to provide support for Israel's "friends."
The source further explains that the United States is adamant about ending Israel's diplomatic isolation and has already taken steps toward that end by supporting some Gulf states that have shown willingness to strengthen their relations with Israel.
Israel genuinely appreciates Egypt's strictly pragmatic approach to bilateral cooperation.
Apart from Netanyahu's visit to Oman and Israel's official participation in Bahrain's economic conference to launch the "century deal," there have been greater Israeli-Gulf negotiations and talks about opening diplomatic missions in Tel Aviv once serious efforts are made to resume the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, a fact complicated by Netanyahu's dependence on the far right of Israeli politics to shore up his attempts to form a coalition government. In addition to that, there are unannounced security technology deals that are currently being negotiated between Israel and a few Gulf states, the source adds.
"Comparing the Israeli-Egyptian relations now with how things were during Mubarak's rule is unreasonable," the source states. "Mubarak is the one who set the scope for the relationship given that he came to power shortly after Sadat's assassination following Camp David. But the regional and global situation in the current moment greatly differs from what it was like during Mubarak's era."
"In all cases, Israel understands both the limits of what the Egyptian authorities can currently do and the considerations they have to make in this political climate. Israel genuinely appreciates Egypt's strictly pragmatic approach to bilateral cooperation that moves away from political slogans that neither side actually advocates for," says the source.
The first governmental source who spoke to Mada Masr highlights that the Egyptian government has been proactive in setting the terms of cooperation with Israel for two reasons. The first reason is that the Israeli authorities sometimes like to remind their Egyptian counterparts of the support that the former provided the latter at different moments. So Egypt also wants leverage to remind Israel that the relationship is mutually beneficial.
The second reason is that there is an awareness of the Egyptian public's sensitivity toward Israel in light of the continuous suffering of the Palestinian people and the receding opportunities for productive negotiations — a situation that vastly differs from the years of Mubarak's rule, when negotiations between Israel and Palestine were ongoing, often with the help of Egyptian mediation.
Israel is also aware of limitations on how public the bilateral support with Egypt can be, given local and regional complications. Yet ultimately, relations have improved so much that even Israeli hardliners — who have always criticized the cold peace between Egypt and Israel — cannot deny it.
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