Why Egypt is staying quiet on Israel’s West Bank annexation plan

Facing numerous crises at home and abroad, Cairo cannot afford to alienate Israel and the United States

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi (right) on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York on September 27, 2018. (Avi Ohayon / PMO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi (right) on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York on September 27, 2018. (Avi Ohayon / PMO)

Two weeks ago, Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman al-Safadi flew by helicopter to visit Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in his presidential palace in Ramallah.

His Egyptian counterpart, Sameh Shoukry, was also invited along. Photos from the event were meant to feature two of Israel’s neighbors at Abbas’s side. Both nations have fought multiple wars with Israel, both have signed historic peace treaties with the Jewish state, and both would reaffirm their commitment to the Palestinian cause and opposition to Israel’s planned annexation of parts of the West Bank.

But when the time came, one face was missing from the picture. Shoukry canceled his plans to attend in deference to other pressing issues on the Egyptian docket, senior Fatah official Jibril Rajoub confirmed at a press conference in Ramallah last Sunday.

Shoukry’s failure to show up may symbolize the embattled Egyptian government’s ambivalent attitude toward Israel’s plan. While Egypt has expressed concern about annexation, the Palestinian cause may no longer be the regime’s main priority.

“There are far more substantial crises facing Egypt today: the coronavirus crisis and its attendant economic consequences, Turkish military intervention on Egypt’s longest border, the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. All of these crises take priority over annexation,” said Ofir Winter, who studies Egyptian-Israeli relations at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi (left) meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, on June 18, 2020. (Wafa news agency)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has announced that it will pursue the annexation of the 30 percent of the West Bank allocated to Israel under the Trump administration’s peace plan — namely all of the settlements along with the strategic Jordan Valley — as early as July 1.

The prospect of unilateral annexation has been condemned internationally, with the United Nations, European and Arab countries, and senior members of the US Democratic Party warning the Israeli government against the move.

Cairo has been circumspect in its criticism of the plan. Dealing with a serious outbreak of coronavirus at home and balancing numerous crises on its borders, the Egyptian government can ill-afford to alienate close allies, especially Israel and the United States, analysts told the Times of Israel.

Jordanian officials, by contrast, seem to be working around the clock to prevent Israel’s planned annexation. Jordanian Prime Minister Omar al-Razzaz said in May that if Israel proceeds with annexation, Jordan would consider reviewing all aspects of its relationship with the Jewish state, including the historic 1994 peace treaty.

If Israel “really annexes the West Bank in July, it would lead to a massive conflict with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan,” King Abdullah II warned in an interview with Der Spiegel in mid-May.

With an overwhelmingly Palestinian population, Jordan’s battle to maintain the status quo is a core element of its national security. While Jordan depends on Israel both economically and for security, maintaining the peace treaty with Israel post-annexation could deal a serious blow to the government’s legitimacy.

“Everything that happens between Israel and the Palestinians directly impacts Jordan, more than half of whose population is Palestinian. Egypt is much less vulnerable, because of this demographic reality,” Winter told the Times of Israel.

Egyptian officials have thus criticized annexation in general terms, without publicly threatening changes in their relationship with Israel.

“Foreign Minister Shoukry is deeply concerned over circulated reports on annexation plans by the Israeli government in the West Bank territories, and of the consequences of such a step on regional peace and security, and affirms Egypt’s rejection of any unilateral measures in contravention of international law,” Shoukry’s office said in a statement on June 24.

Jordanian King Abdullah and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas meeting in Amman on December 18, 2018. (Credit: Wafa)

The Egyptian government supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, the statement said.

“Egypt will see this as the end of the peace process. From their perspective, that’s also not in their interest. They want to see a solution that will provide for Palestinian rights but also will do so in a way that accords with Egyptian interest,” Winter said. 

Unlike Jordan’s King Abdullah, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi has not commented publicly on the planned annexation since December, when he dismissed Netanyahu’s promise to annex parts of the West Bank as mere “campaign promises.”

Sissi has been broadly supportive of US President Donald Trump’s peace plan, however, which is the basis for the planned annexation. If Trump’s plan is implemented as outlined, Egypt would receive about $9.167 billion in aid.

“Sissi is sitting quietly, behind the scenes, listening, waiting to see which kind of annexation Israel will implement,” former Israeli ambassador to Egypt Yitzhak Levanon told The Times of Israel.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi speaks as he meets with President Donald Trump at the InterContinental Barclay hotel during the United Nations General Assembly, Monday, Sept. 23, 2019, in New York. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Dammed if they do

Sissi seemed to be at the peak of his reign. Since coming to power in a military coup in 2013, he had strengthened relations with the United States, Israel and the Gulf states. Egypt had become the fastest growing economy in the Middle East, earning plaudits and aid from the International Monetary Fund. In a sweeping crackdown, the regime jailed or banished the revolutionary coalition of liberals and Islamists that had toppled former dictator Hosni Mubarak.

In neighboring Libya, Sissi’s gamble on warlord Khalifa Haftar’s 2014 military coup seemed to have been successful. In the subsequent civil war, Haftar’s forces conquered half the country and were closing in on the UN-recognized government’s capital in Tripoli.

Today, however, Egypt is a country besieged by urgent crises both foreign and domestic.

Following Turkey’s military intervention in Libya beginning earlier this year, Haftar has lost several key battles. To maintain the status quo, Sissi has now committed the Egyptian army to sending troops on the ground if the UN-recognized government crosses the Sirte-Jufra axis, which the Tripoli government says it intends to do.

At the same time, Egypt’s coronavirus crisis has dealt a serious blow to the country’s economy, which is largely based on tourism and remittances from Egyptians working in the Gulf countries. Both have suffered serious losses as a result of the pandemic.

During the opening months of the outbreak, the Egyptian government dismissed the pandemic’s severity and expelled journalists who reported evidence that the caseload far exceeded government projections. But as confirmed infections have climbed to over 1,500 new cases a day, Cairo can no longer deny the toll that COVID-19 is taking across the country.

Egyptians gather in downtown Cairo as they wait to get tested for coronavirus on March 8, 2020. (Khaled DESOUKI / AFP)

Several high-ranking army officers have died, despite access to exclusive military healthcare facilities. Hospitals are as packed with cases as Cairo’s infamously crowded streets. Videos on social media purportedly show men and women infected with the virus sitting outside hospitals, waiting to recover or to die.

Cairo believes the most serious threat, however, is to the south, as Ethiopia proceeds with a plan to construct a massive hydroelectric dam over the Nile that the Egyptian government says would significantly reduce the amount of water Egypt receives every year.

Most of Egypt is infertile desert, with the vast majority of the country’s cities and towns clustered around the Nile. Tens of millions of Egyptians live on its banks and depend upon the river for agriculture and drinking water.

“The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is, quite literally, a life or death issue for Cairo. Not Ramallah, not annexation. In the Egyptian strategic mindset, why would we waste our time with that?” an Egyptian foreign affairs analyst told The Times of Israel on condition of anonymity.

Ethiopia is scheduled to begin filling in the Renaissance Dam within the next two weeks, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali’s office announced on Saturday. While negotiations are ongoing, both Egypt and Ethiopia have hinted at a willingness to pursue military solutions.

Ethiopia’s dam may not affect its relations with Israel directly, but Egypt needs American support for its position, Winter said. A clash with Israel over annexation could raise hackles in Washington, which has been broadly supportive of the planned annexation.

“Egypt is dependent on the United States, and it needs US support for its stance against Ethiopia with the Renaissance Dam. As such, they do not want to engage in a direct confrontation with the United States over Israel and annexation,” Winter said.

In a statement in February, following the collapse of US-mediated negotiations over the Renaissance Dam’s future, US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said that it was not America’s job to “impose a solution” on the Nile Basin states.

Close Ties With Israel

Since the 2013 military coup, Sissi’s regime has sought closer ties with Israel, to the extent that former ambassador to Egypt Haim Koren once called recent relations between the two countries, “the best we’ve ever had.”

Egypt depends on Israel for military cooperation in the Sinai Peninsula, where a violent Islamist insurgency has continued for several years. “Sissi, today, cannot fight in Sinai without Israel. Despite his big army, he was unable to deal with the Islamic State there, to contain them,” Levanon said.

Egyptian president Fattah al-Sisi, left, and Ethiopian prime minister Hilemariam Desalegn, right, shake hands after the press conference at The National Palace, March 24, 2015. in Addis Ababa Ethiopia. The leaders of Egypt and Ethiopia have agreed to upgrade talks over the controversial Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam that Addis Ababa is constructing over the Nile River. (AP Photo/ Mulugeata Ayene/File)

Israel also helped bring about about Egypt’s return to the United States’ good graces after Sissi’s coup d’etat, Winter said.

In 2013, the United States briefly suspended the $1.3 billion in military aid it provides yearly to Egypt, in accordance with a US law banning aid to countries whose governments have been deposed by a military insurrection. The Obama administration delayed recognizing the new Egyptian government until the following year.

“It was difficult for the Americans during the Obama administration to accept the non-democratic transition in Egypt. Israel helped Egypt to get recognition and pushed for the United States to renew its aid to Egypt,” Winter said.

Economic ties between the two countries have also grown stronger. In January, Egypt, Israel and several other regional states signed off on the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, which promotes regional cooperation on natural gas issues. Egypt began importing natural gas from Israel earlier this year.

At the same time, Egypt’s relations with Palestinian factions have soured. Palestinian terror group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, was originally a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Sissi’s regime came to power by overthrowing the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and views the organization as a terrorist group.

The regime has also cracked down on pro-Palestinian activism at home, arresting Ramy Shaath, the Egypt coordinator for the anti-Zionist Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, on charges of belonging to a “terrorist organization.”

“There is widespread sympathy for the Palestinians, and that’s not going away… But the importance of the Palestinian cause is no longer the same. It’s no longer the Nasser era or the Sadat era,” the Egyptian analyst told the Times of Israel.

If annexation proceeds, Cairo will need to respond somehow, the analyst said. But he was skeptical that an Egyptian reply would be more than rhetorical, saying that the regime simply did not see the issue as a core interest.

Yitzhak Levanon at an ambassadors' meeting in Jerusalem, December 2010 (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
Yitzhak Levanon at an ambassadors’ meeting in Jerusalem, December 2010 (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

“There will be a couple of statements — they’ll invoke Oslo and Geneva and the Arab Peace Initiative. They’ll keep rehashing all the old diplomatic statements to express their disagreement with annexation. But I don’t think Netanyahu’s relationship with Sissi will be affected,” he said.

Levanon said that the extent of the annexation could make a key difference in how harsh the Egyptian response might be.

If Israel annexes the settlement blocs, there might be only a “moderate” Egyptian reply, but if Israel annexes in Area C in a way that would prevent the future establishment of a Palestinian state, it will be difficult for Egypt to avoid responding, Levanon said.

“Will annexation be a small bite that the Egyptians can swallow, or more than they can chew, and they’ll choke?” Levanon asked.

What options does Egypt have to respond to Israeli annexation, should it choose to do so? Not many, Winter said.

“The problem for Egypt is that it gives Israel much less in its relationship, and as such has much less with which to threaten Israel. The only way it could damage Israeli ambitions would be through withdrawal from the Gas Forum — but then Egypt would also be hurting itself, because it’s a common interest,” Winter said.

The Egyptian Embassy in Tel Aviv did not respond to a request for comment.

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