Israeli officials — not least of all the prime minister — expressed great satisfaction and optimism after Naftali Bennett’s first meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi that the cold peace that Israel has made do with since 1979 is about to thaw.
Bennett said after the Monday visit to Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula that he had “an important and very good meeting” with Sissi, in which the two “laid the foundation for deep ties moving forward.”
Before getting on his flight back to Israel, Bennett said that the two leaders discussed broadening trade and tourism, striking a hopeful tone that there would be a shift from the largely behind-the-scenes ties toward a greater public embrace.
There were certainly reasons for that optimism. The move to host Bennett, initiated by Sissi and delivered through intelligence chief Abbas Kamel during his August visit to Jerusalem, was significant in and of itself. It had been a decade since an Israeli leader made a public visit to Egypt, and Sissi could have made do with a quiet sitdown with Bennett on the sidelines of the upcoming United Nations General Assembly in New York.
Instead, Bennett was treated to a very public meeting with Sissi, complete with joint statements to the press, an Israeli flag flying behind him and front-page coverage in Egyptian newspapers.
But Israel — and Bennett — should be careful not to get too far ahead of themselves. Anti-Israel sentiment dominates Egyptian society, including among its elites, and Sissi has no intention of making trouble for his regime by stirring up resentment over his approach to Israel.
“The invitation does not indicate a readiness on the part of Egypt to move toward full normalization, or to deepen bilateral economic, civil society and cultural relations,” cautioned Moshe Albo, senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at Reichman University in Herlizya.
“The meeting was meant to strengthen Cairo’s vital role in Jerusalem and in Washington, and to leverage it to advance interests at the heart of Egypt’s national security,” he said.
The Biden factor
Egypt finds itself facing a number of significant challenges, and Bennett’s visit could help it confront those at the top of the agenda of decision-makers in Cairo.
Leading that list are Egypt’s ties with the US.
Since the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Egypt has been firmly in the pro-US camp. Bipartisan support for aid to Egypt has long been a fixture of US policy. Egypt receives more foreign aid from Washington than any country except Israel, and the bilateral military ties are deep and varied.
During the Obama presidency, both sides took a long, critical look at the relationship. In January 2011, Egyptians took the streets to protest Hosni Mubarak, the pro-Western president who had ruled Egypt for 30 years. Obama eventually supported protesters’ demands for Mubarak’s removal. Officials in Israel and Saudi Arabia were stunned, seeing the threat as a betrayal of a loyal US ally.
The US administration ignored regional allies in legitimizing the election of Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi a year later.
When the military took over in 2013, Obama decided not to call the takeover a coup, and thus be required by US law to suspend aid. However, he did halt deliveries of jet fighters and attack helicopters, as well as $260 million in aid. Washington also canceled the biennial “Bright Star” maneuvers between the two countries.
Uncowed, new Egyptian leader Sissi led a blistering and deadly crackdown on dissent, even against citizens of Western allies, and began reducing the country’s dependency on the US.
Donald Trump’s administration prioritized regional security, though it did suspend military aid and reduce economic assistance in 2017, largely in response to Congressional pressure. Trump jokingly called his Egyptian counterpart “my favorite dictator” at the 2019 G7, but the quip describes accurately the US approach over the last four years as Trump went out of his way to publicly support Sissi.
From the outset, the Biden administration was explicit in its intention to pressure Sissi on his human rights record.
“We will bring our values with us into every relationship that we have across the globe,” pledged State Department spokesman Ned Price in March. “That includes with our close security partners. That includes with Egypt.”
The pledge has begun to manifest in US policy. On the same day Bennett and Sissi met, reports emerged that the US was freezing $130 million in aid unless Egypt meets benchmarks on human rights. Unnamed officials told the Washington Post those conditions include ending prosecutions of rights and civil society groups, as well as the dropping of charges against 16 individuals whose cases the US has raised with Egypt.
The warm meeting with Bennett on Monday – who enjoyed an enthusiastic welcome from Biden during his late August visit – was a way for Cairo to remind the US that it is an irreplaceable player in maintaining stability in the region, and shouldn’t be pressed too hard on internal matters.
It made significant headway in cementing that image in American eyes during the 11-day round of violence between Israel and Hamas in May.
“Heading into that conflict, Egypt was not really on the radar of the Biden administration,” said Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. “But Egypt embraced its role as the arbiter between Hamas and Israel.”
By the time the conflict was over, the Biden administration had to acknowledge the crucial role Egypt had played in restoring quiet in Gaza.
Israel has been sure to publicly emphasize Egypt’s role as well. Foreign Minister Yair Lapid stressed “the critical importance of Egypt” during his address on Gaza earlier this week. “It won’t happen without the support and involvement of our Egyptian partners and without their ability to talk to everyone involved.”
Bennett’s office also mentioned Egypt’s role in maintaining stability and calm in Gaza in its post-meeting readout.
Egypt wants Israel to continue to urge the Biden administration to limit its criticism of Egypt’s human rights record.
“They saw the positive, close connection created between Bennet and Biden in the recent meeting,” said Ofir Winter, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, “and there is an understanding that Israel can influence the administration and the US in two areas that are important to Egypt.”
Those two areas are continued aid, and tensions with Ethiopia over its Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project on the Blue Nile, said Winter.
Ethiopia says the colossal dam offers a critical opportunity to pull millions of its nearly 110 million citizens out of poverty and become a major power exporter. Downstream Egypt, which depends on the Nile to supply its farmers and booming population of 100 million with freshwater, asserts that the dam poses an existential threat.
Ethiopia has been moving ahead filling the dam as a diplomatic solution seems to be increasingly unlikely in the foreseeable future.
Egypt sees the issue as one of its main foreign policy challenges, and its diplomatic efforts have failed to dissuade Ethiopia from pushing ahead. Cairo believes that Israel has sway in both Washington and Addis Ababa, and could be the key to bringing Ethiopia back to the negotiating table, according to Albo.
“Israel must take care not to become the mediator between Ethiopia and Egypt,” said Albo, “because of the low likelihood of success and the implications of failure on relations with both states.”
Still, he stressed, Israel can support Egypt’s position in Washington and can offer its own water technologies to help Egypt deal with potential shortages that arise as a result of the dam.
Cautious expansion of trade
Statements after the meeting from Israeli officials indicated an expectation that the trade relationship between the two countries would expand in the wake of the meeting.
There have been some positive signs. Though the volume is still not especially high, Israeli exports to Egypt have expanded nearly fourfold since the mid-1990s.
Senior Israeli businesspeople accompanied then-Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen on his March trip to Sharm el-Sheikh, indicating a desire by Cairo to expand economic ties somewhat.
In October, Egypt Air, the country’s national air carrier, will begin operating direct flights between Cairo and Tel Aviv. Currently, the only flights between Israel and Cairo are operated by Air Sinai, a subsidiary of EgyptAir, which operates the flights in unmarked planes without the Egyptian flag.
“The economic issue has become central to Egypt’s foreign policy in recent years,” Winter explained. “The economy is seen as important to the regime’s stability… There are many economic considerations that are important to Egypt in the context of its ties with Israel.”
Still, said Winter, it was clear that Israeli statements after the meeting stressed the trade relationship far more than the Egyptian.
As with all aspects of its relationship with Israel, Cairo is moving carefully on this aspect of the ties as well.
“They understand there is potential,” said Albo. “They understand there is a lot of money on the table here.”
“They are trying to position it in places that on the one hand won’t create a mess for themselves domestically, while on the other hand advancing things that they can advance.”
The easiest area to expand the economic relationship is Israeli tourism in southern Sinai. This does not create antagonism on the Egyptian street, and is an important source of foreign currency for a country whose tourism sector contracted drastically in the wake of the 2011 revolution, and again because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Notably, on the day of the Bennett-Sissi meeting, Israel lifted the travel restrictions on citizens visiting the Sinai Peninsula just days ahead of Sukkot, a popular period for the travel destination.
The Taba crossing point for cars between Israel and Sinai became fully operational with no limit on the number of entry permits, and extended its opening hours.
Last month, Israel scaled back its security travel advisory for the Sinai for the first time in years. The decision was made after Kamel visited Israel for high-level talks on Gaza.
Another area where the trade relationship between the countries can expand is the Qualifying Industrial Zone. The QIZ was formed in 2004 in a deal between Israel, Egypt and the US. Under the agreement, Egypt can export goods to the US duty-free if 10.5 percent of a product’s components are made in Israel.
Bennett is familiar with the QIZ issue. Experts on the Egypt-Israel relationship told The Times of Israel that they briefed Bennett on the QIZ during his time as economy minister from 2013-2015.
Moreover, the public nature of the meeting with Bennett is also an important sign for the growth of the economic relationship. The front-page photo of Bennett and Sissi in the Al-Masry Al-Youm daily on Tuesday is one prominent example.
“That’s a hint that doing business with Israel is now legitimate,” said Winter.
Israelis should not expect a trade relationship similar to the fast-developing ties with the UAE and Bahrain, however. There is far too much antagonism toward Israel, and the byzantine bureaucracy does not lend itself to robust private sector ties without government involvement.
Beyond terror and Turkey
Of course, security concerns remain at the heart of the relationship.
Israel and Egypt continue to coordinate closely against terrorist groups in northern Sinai.
Egypt’s efforts to mediate a long-term arrangement in Gaza also stem from Cairo’s view of the Muslim Brotherhood — of which Hamas is an offshoot — as an existential threat to the regime.
Like Israel, Cairo views the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan with alarm. Jihadi groups will be encouraged by the takeover, and Afghanistan may again become a training group for global terrorist organizations that Egypt is battling.
Israel is also an indispensable partner for Cairo in its ongoing bitter rivalry with Turkey, which began when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan backed the Muslim Brotherhood after the group was ousted from power in Cairo when Sissi took over in 2013.
Cairo fought a proxy war with Turkey in Libya from 2014-2020, and hosts a regional gas forum that includes Israel, Greece and Cyprus, designed to counter Turkish moves in the eastern Mediterranean.
Though Ankara has made overtures in an attempt to turn the corner with Cairo, Egyptian officials have been circumspect.
These national security issues all have economic implications as well. Stability in the Sinai is crucial to restoring tourism, and Turkey has been standing in the way of Egypt’s plan to become the leading regional energy hub.
Though security ties will continue to be a central component of the Israel-Egypt relationship, perhaps the most important aspect of the Bennett-Sissi meeting are the signs that Egypt is ready to carefully broaden the relationship.
The strongest indication is the public nature of the meeting. In the past, Egypt sought to minimize exposure of its relationship with Israel in order to avoid public backlash.
“We should hope that the current meeting laid some sort of foundation for a further enhancement of relations themselves, and also their public visibility,” said Winter.
“There are many things that can be done the minute the political echelon in Egypt signals to the professional echelon that in its eyes, it’s ok,” explained Eran Lerman, vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and past deputy director of Israel’s National Security Council.
There has also been a new openness to normalization with Israel by other countries. Even under Mubarak, Egypt would criticize any sign of normalization it identified, wanting to maintain its role as the gatekeeper to Israel’s relationship with the Arab world. But Egypt publicly supported the Abraham Accords, with Sissi calling UAE leader Mohammad Bin Zayed to congratulate him on the “historic step…in advancing the peace process.”
Lerman sees this as part of Sissi’s vision for Egypt’s future.
There is potential here that Sissi identifies,” he said. “I see it in cultural symbols within Egypt, with the focus on Egyptian identity, Mediterranean identity, a certain distancing from the pan-Arab pretensions from those years [of open conflict with Israel from the 1940s- 1970s], and all this make the ties with Israel even more natural.”
Others viewed the meeting as significant in moving the bilateral ties beyond the Sissi-Netanyahu relationship.
“This is an important moment of transition for the relationship to ensure that it becomes one that is a systemic relationship,” said Schanzer. “It’s a relationship that runs deeper than individuals.”
“I think Sissi needs to begin to trust the democratic process and Israel, and understand that he needs to work with multiple leaders given the volatility of the Israeli electoral system.”
Aaron Boxerman and Tal Schneider contributed to this report.
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