Now that President Mohammed Morsi has ousted the leadership of Egypt’s armed forces, will his next step be to cancel the peace treaty with Israel?
According to former Israeli ambassador to Egypt, Eli Shaked, that’s what the Egyptian “street” wants him to do, and it’s certainly possible. “Egypt might take a step to abolish… diplomatic relations with Israel,” Shaked told reporters Monday, “because this is actually until today the demand that is coming from the people in the street.”
But Shaked, who served in Cairo from 2004-2005, is a particularly pessimistic voice, and even said he is inclined to regard the dramatic changes at the top of the military hierarchy as more a domestic affair than a function of foreign relations. “In the short run, I don’t see any change in the Israeli-Egyptian relations or any implications for those relations,” he said.
On Sunday, President Morsi — a member of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood — surprisingly ordered “the retirement” of long-term defense minister and military strongman Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, chief of staff Gen. Sami Anan and other senior generals. Thus far unchallenged by the military, analysts say the move consolidates power in the hands of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party and effectively spells the end of 60 years of military ascendancy in Egypt.
Yitzhak Levanon, who served as Israel’s ambassador in Cairo from 2009 until 2011, is more sanguine than Shaked.
“I didn’t hear from the people in Egypt that they demand to cut off the diplomatic relations,” he told The Times of Israel. “Yes, I heard some people saying that ‘we should revise the Camp David Accords.’ Others say Egypt should put this Accord to a public referendum. And yet others say we should probably revise the security annex.”
Levanon was referring to the Protocol Concerning Israeli Withdrawal and Security, which limits the military forces Egypt is allowed to station near the Israeli border.
After an August 5 attack near the Israel-Egypt-Gaza border, during which Islamist terrorists killed 16 Egyptian servicemen before smashing through the border into Israel where they were killed, Morsi ordered a crackdown on terror cells in the Sinai, reportedly killing dozens. Israel agreed to have Egyptian warplanes flying attacks near its border for the first time since the agreement was signed, figuring it was better to allow a short-term departure from the terms of the treaty than to prevent Cairo from trying to uproot terror from the peninsula.
“We can already see improvement on the ground,” Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said two days after the attack. “What remains to be seen is whether it will last.”
‘Nobody in Egypt will touch the peace treaty with Israel’
Nobody in Egypt wants to return to a state of war with Israel, Levanon asserted.
“I believe nobody will touch the Camp David Accords and the peace treaty in the near future,” he told The Times of Israel on Tuesday. “But there is a difference between entirely cutting off diplomatic relations and keeping the relations frozen. It’s a possibility that relations will be close to zero, especially the contacts between the people and the media, cultural and economic interactions — they will be really cold for a while.”
Hostility toward Israel in the Egyptian public existed long before the revolution and has nothing to do with bilateral relations, says Levanon. Rather, the Egyptian street considers Jerusalem’s treatment of the Palestinians “too harsh and inhumane,” he posits. “If we reached an understanding with which the Palestinians would be satisfied, a solution that both sides agree on, the whole situation with Egypt would substantially improve.”
Indeed, while experts say a cancellation of the peace treaty is unlikely, most agree bilateral relations will remain frosty at best.
So far, no real channel of diplomatic communications has been established between Jerusalem and the new government in Cairo, a diplomatic source told The Times of Israel. While the office of President Shimon Peres two weeks ago published a friendly letter it said was sent to him by his Egyptian counterpart, Morsi quickly denied having made contact with Peres.
‘If Morsi doesn’t lose his GPS, he understands the importance of keeping the peace agreement and cooperation between Egypt and Israel’
It’s true that the Egyptian public is anti-Israel and that Morsi is very attentive to the public — which is ostensibly why he denied contacting Peres, says Mira Tzoreff, a research fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies. “But that is a far cry from cancellation of the peace treaty,” she said. “So far — and I don’t know what will happen tomorrow — Morsi hasn’t lost his GPS. If he doesn’t lose his GPS, he understands the importance of keeping the peace agreement and cooperation between Egypt and Israel, especially after the terror attack in Sinai.”
Tzoreff says that Israeli academics who researched the Muslim Brotherhood currently differ from former diplomats who served in Egypt in their assessments of the group — and thus of the future of bilateral relations.
“The Muslim Brotherhood, both in ideology as well as in practice, are not fundamentalists at all. From their founding in 1928 until today, as individuals and as a group, they never showed any aspirations to turn Egypt into Iran,” Tzoreff told The Times of Israel.
Members of the Muslim Brotherhood are “actually pretty much into realpolitik,” she added. “They have the [Islamist] ideology, but they also have a ladder to come down from their ideology whenever it clashes with reality,” said Tzoreff, who specializes in the religion-state relationship in Muslim and Arab societies.
To be sure, relations with Israel will never be the same as they were under presidents Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, but Morsi has pledged to honor all international treaties, she emphasized.
Jerusalem, for now, is staying mum on the latest developments in Cairo, at least officially. “Israel does not interfere in Egyptian internal affairs,” Ofir Gendelman, a spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said Monday. Any reports about an “alleged Israeli position on the latest events in Egypt are completely and utterly baseless,” he insisted.
The Foreign Ministry only says that it hopes the current treaty will be honored and even expanded. “We are not in the business of making forecasts,” the ministry’s spokesman, Yigal Palmor, said. “Nobody expected what happened last week, which shows again that if there’s anything the events of 2011 have taught us, it’s that the Middle East is unpredictable.”