Sunday’s surprise visit to Israel by Egypt’s top diplomat, Sameh Shoukry, could herald a new golden age of Arab-Israeli cooperation. What started with a friendly dinner in Jerusalem discussing a prime ministerial visit to Cairo could lead to the relaunching of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks under Egyptian auspices, and maybe even end with the successful conclusion of a long-sought final-status agreement deal.
But as Jews know from an earlier experience with Egypt, just because the road looks short doesn’t mean it won’t take 40 years. Jerusalem’s enthusiasm over the historic visit might yet prove premature.
The last time an Egyptian foreign minister came to Israel was nine years ago. On July 25, 2007, Ahmed Aboul Gheit (who earlier this year became the secretary-general of the Arab League) and his Jordanian colleague Abdelelah Al-Khatib arrived in Jerusalem. Officially, their visit was billed as a mission of an “Arab League Initiative Supervisory Committee” tasked with explaining the Arab Peace Initiative to Israeli leaders.
At the time, Benjamin Netanyahu was the head of the opposition, Ehud Olmert was prime minister and Tzipi Livni was foreign minister. She had returned from a meeting with then-Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in Cairo just a few months earlier.
But major tectonic shifts have taken place in the Middle East since 2007, thoroughly reorganizing the regional system of alliances. These changes made possible Sunday’s visit, which was held in a “very good atmosphere,” a senior Israeli official said. “There is a welcome change from the Egyptians that manifested itself in their readiness to publicize their good relations with Israel,” the official said.
Indeed, unlike his predecessor’s visit nearly a decade ago, Shoukry’s arrival in Jerusalem is not being sold as part of an international delegation. He held two meetings with Netanyahu — one at the office, one at the prime minister’s residence, where he signed the guestbook and even stepped out on the patio to watch the final of the Euro soccer tournament. The fact that Shoukry did not mind being photographed fraternizing with the Israeli leader in an nonprofessional context is truly remarkable.
— Benjamin Netanyahu (@netanyahu) July 10, 2016
Furthermore, Israelis and Egyptians are currently planning to organize a meeting in Cairo between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Egyptian President Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi later this year, according to several Israeli and Arab sources.
All these are clear signs of warming ties between the two governments and another impressive foreign policy achievement for Netanyahu.
But in diplomacy it is all about interests, and the Egyptians are not cozying up to Israel because they have become ardent Zionists. Cairo is pursuing several goals in its rapprochement with Israel, and despite the justified satisfaction over Shoukry’s historic visit, Jerusalem should keep in mind that there are limits to the Egyptian-Israeli relationship.
Cairo’s main interest in its budding friendship with Jerusalem is cooperation in the fields of security and energy. Egypt needs Israel’s help in effectively fighting Hamas and other terrorists groups, and is eager for Israel’s natural gas.
Other areas of mutual concern are Turkey’s role in the Middle East and the Egyptian offer to return the Sanafir and Tiran islands to Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, Cairo reportedly believes Israel’s newly strengthened influence in Ethiopia could help Egypt in its negotiations with Addis Ababa over the latter’s construction of a new dam on the River Nile.
Equally important, Sissi sees himself as the new patron of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, as he made plain in his May 17 speech calling on both sides to relaunch negotiations and offering his stewardship in the process. Israeli cooperation is crucial if Sissi wants to cement the regional leadership role he so craves.
“My visit to Israel today is a continuation of Egypt’s longstanding sense of responsibility toward peace for itself and all the peoples of the region,” Shoukry declared Sunday at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem. “Egypt remains ready to contribute toward achieving this goal.”
Cairo’s commitment to finding a solution for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict remains “steadfast and unwavering,” he reiterated, adding that his government was “serious in its determination to provide all possible forms of support in order to achieve this noble goal.”
Israel, unhappy about the French plan for an international conference later this year Paris, has always preferred a regional approach and is not opposed to Egypt taking the lead in the peace process. The European approach, Netanyahu believes, will lead nowhere and only harden the Palestinian negotiating position. On the other hand, he expects the Sunni Arab states to be able to convince Ramallah to make the concessions needed for progress.
A new peace push led by Sissi could block the French initiative and stifle any attempt by US President Barack Obama to support a Palestine-related resolution at the United Nations, the Israeli leader hopes. In this respect, too, there is real a convergence of interests between Jerusalem and Cairo.
However, Shoukry made plain that he is not giving Israel any free passes when it comes to the Palestinian issue. “The plight of the Palestinian people becomes more arduous every day, and the dream of peace and security moves further out of the Israeli people’s reach as long as the conflict continues,” he said.
“It is no longer acceptable to claim that the status quo is the most that we can achieve of the hopes and the aspirations of the Palestinian and Israeli peoples,” he declared. The status quo is unsustainable, he added, calling for “serious steps to build confidence.”
Egypt has made the first step by coming to Jerusalem, and now the onus is on the Israelis to show they are serious about making progress, Shoukry implied.
The ball is indeed now in Israel’s court, and Netanyahu might find it difficult to deliver the goods Egypt requires to keep showing goodwill. The prime minister’s May 30 declaration that the Arab Peace Initiative “contains positive elements” is not enough. In order to justify his embrace of Israel to the Egyptian people, Sissi will need to see concrete steps from Jerusalem.
But Netanyahu’s right-leaning coalition — and his own convictions — could make it difficult for him to make moves that could lead to meaningful progress. And if the current efforts to relaunch Israeli-Palestinian negotiations crash and burn due to what many Egyptians will doubtlessly see as Israeli recalcitrance, Sissi might quickly downgrade again his public engagement with Jerusalem.