Israel’s Relationship with Egypt: An Uncertain Future

If Egyptians, Israelis and Palestinians can agree on a settlement, a real breakthrough for peace could be achieved.

israel_egypt-flagIn spite of more than three decades of diplomatic relations between Egypt and Israel, most Egyptians view the peace treaty signed in 1979 as a cold peace. Many demand that the treaty be amended and some have advocated severing ties with the Jewish state.

These anti-Israel sentiments stem from a combination of state-run anti-Israel propaganda beginning in the 1950s during the Nasser years and the inability to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Egyptians argue that although the treaty was ratified between governments, Israel – by relying primarily on former dictator Hosni Mubarak and his inner circle – failed to win the hearts of the Egyptian people.

Israel’s Uncertain Future with Morsi

Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood member and Hamas sympathizer, generated alarm in Israel following his presidential victory last June, for obvious reasons. Israel feared that he would put the treaty to a referendum, knowing full well that Egyptians would seek modifications and perhaps a downgrade of diplomatic ties. The Israeli government also believes Morsi and the Islamist-dominated Egyptian parliament will seek to elevate and legitimize Hamas’s rule in Gaza.

Uncertainty has dominated even trivial issues between the two. Last July, Morsi sent Israeli President Shimon Peres a brief letter declaring Egypt’s commitment to Middle East peace. Morsi’s spokesperson later denied the letter was genuine, although Peres verified its authenticity on his official Facebook page.

Mutual trust was further eroded on August 5 after unknown Islamist jihadists, six foreign nationals and one Egyptian citizen, killed sixteen Egyptian soldiers in Sinai. The Islamists allegedly entered Egypt via Gaza and their aim was to ultimately infiltrate Israel and kill or kidnap soldiers and civilians, it is claimed. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas immediately blamed Israel for the attack. Hamas, seeking to protect its new-found relationship with Morsi, denied involvement and quickly agreed to cooperate with Egypt.

This incident has produced two ironic and perhaps unintended consequences. For one, the increasingly lawlessness in Sinai and tunnel smuggling along the Gaza border has in reality forced greater Egyptian-Israeli collaboration, even if it is a matter of convenience. In order to apprehend the militants who perpetrated the attack, Israel and Egypt agreed to allow Egyptian tanks and helicopters into Sinai – a deviation from the 1979 treaty which stipulated that the Peninsula be demilitarized.

On August 25 Morsi reopened the Rafah crossing – Gaza’s sole land crossing into Egypt – after it was closed following the earlier Sinai attack. Egypt agreed to this only after Hamas assisted in demolishing around 120 tunnels which were used for smuggling medicine, food, weapons and other illicit merchandise. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu views this as an important victory as many weapons smuggled through these tunnels have been used in rocket attacks against southern Israel.

Another outcome of the Sinai attack has been the strengthening of Egyptian-Gaza ties. In a reversal of Mubarak’s policy, Cairo has recently permitted Gazans to enter Egypt via Rafah for three days without a visa. Hamas has also stated that Gaza will soon be connected to Egypt’s electricity grid and natural gas pipeline.

These actions would diminish Israel’s role as supplier of power and energy to the coastal territory but also bolster its claims that is not the occupying power. Reports suggest that this may be just a first step.

Moving Forward

Israel needs to craft and enact a new strategy to adapt to changing realities and it may be possible to improve relations with Cairo and subsequently the Palestinians by adopting the Arab Peace Initiative (API) and Israeli Peace Initiative (IPI).

The API was adopted by the Arab League in Beirut in 2002 and calls for the Arab world to end its conflict with Israel and to recognize its right to exist, in exchange for Israel’s withdrawal to pre-1967 boundaries.

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The API is an unprecedented declaration which repudiates the three “no’s” issued as part of the Khartoum resolution of September 1967. This type of comprehensive peace package: Arab recognition, normalization and diplomatic relations with Israel is precisely what Israel has claimed it wants for over four decades.

The API insists on a total withdrawal from the West Bank, but a more plausible approach accepted by the international community is to advocate mutually agreed land swaps based on demographic realities. Most people on both sides realistically know that if a final agreement is reached, territorial adjustments would reflect facts on the ground, whether they admit this publicly or not.

Areas that are majority Jewish would be part of Israel and areas that are predominately Palestinian could be part of the new Palestinian state (although perhaps this would be subject to a referendum in each municipality). The API calls for Jerusalem as a shared capital for both peoples, and a “just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194,” which ostensibly would involve permitting refugees to live in a future Palestine, not Israel.

The API has not received much media attention in Israel, perhaps due in part to the perception that it was more of an ultimatum than a genuine peace proposal. Saudi Prince Saud al-Faisal once threatened the Israeli government that if they refused the initiative they would “be putting their future not in the hands of the peacemakers but in the hands of the lords of war.”

Last year, a group of Israeli academics, analysts, journalists, military and intelligence officers led by Yuval Rabin and Koby Huberman drafted an official response to the API known as the Israeli Peace Initiative (IPI). The IPI proposes accepting the API as a framework for a comprehensive agreement with the affirmation that “a military solution to the conflict will not achieve peace or provide security for the parties.”

Israeli-Palestinian bilateral talks do not seem capable of achieving a permanent solution. But a multilateral approach using the API and IPI would accelerate the political process and build confidence between the parties. Interim agreements could be created between Israelis and Palestinians (6-12 months) and Israelis, Syrians and Lebanese (24 months). Core issues such as Jerusalem and refugees and final border could be finalized within five years.

Some feel Israel should not be expected to negotiate now because the Arab uprisings have ushered in several Islamist-leaning governments and because of a generally uncertain political atmosphere. The opposite is true. Israel should seize this opportunity and take full advantage of its undisputed military and economic superiority.

Moreover, in such a rapidly changing Middle East, the API’s viability remains uncertain. Earlier in August, Ahmed al-Tayyeb, the mufti of al-Azhar University in Cairo (a leading center of Sunni Islam), alleged that Jerusalem’s demographics were being “changed by the Israelis.” He urged Muslim leaders from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to rescind the API. For the time being, Morsi and other heads of state have not acquiesced to the mufti’s demands.

However, this could change if no diplomatic progress is made. If Egyptians, Israelis and Palestinians can agree that there is room for flexibility with the API and IPI, a real fundamental breakthrough could be achieved.

This article was first published in the Near East Quarterly.

Michael Sharnoff is founder and editor of Sharnoff’s Global Views. For instant updates and breaking news, join our global community on Facebook and Twitter. Read other articles by Michael.