by Neville Teller
Given the flurry of optimistic stories about future Egypt-Israel relations following the meeting on September 13 between Israel’s prime minister and Egypt’s president, a stark statement on September 19 in the on-line magazine IsraelDefense came as something of a shock: “Egypt is preparing its armed forces for the possibility of a war with Israel”.
The well-respected journal justified its statement by referring to the contract signed by Egypt in May this year to buy 30 advanced Rafale fighter jets from France. The deal, states the magazine, was intended “to improve Egypt’s chances if it has to fight the powerful Israeli Air Force.”
Its assessment of Egypt’s motives at the time may well be correct, but a lot of water has flowed under the political bridge since May, and the undisputed warming of relations between Egypt and Israel may be causing some apprehension among France’s defense experts. Given the blow the French defense industry has just suffered from the cancellation of Australia’s $68 billion submarine contract, could this $4.5 billion Egyptian deal go the same way?
Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Sharm el-Sheikh, the resort town on the south-eastern edge of the Sinai peninsula. Occupied by Israel during the Six-Day war, that eastern strip of territory was handed back to Egypt, luxury hotel and all, in 1982 in the third phase of Israel’s withdrawal from Sinai.
The meeting between the two leaders went so well that, on the Israeli side at least, officials were full of optimistic predictions about an imminent warming of relations between the two countries and a consequent strengthening of cooperation and mutual support across a range of fields.
Bennett himself said the two leaders had “laid the foundation for deep ties moving forward.” He told reporters that the talks covered diplomacy, security and the economy, including aspirations to expand trade and tourism. Other sources disclosed that the talks had also addressed regional issues, including Iran’s nuclear program and Sisi’s aspirations for a resumption of the Israel-Palestinian peace process, based on the presumption of a two-state solution. One observer claimed that the discussion ranged even wider, and included natural gas, Gaza, increasing the Egyptian army’s presence in Sinai, the GERD (Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam) dispute between Egypt and Sudan on the one hand, and Ethiopia on the other, and more.
It is not unlikely that Sisi arranged this open show of friendship toward Israel’s new prime minister with one eye on Washington. Egypt receives more foreign aid from Washington than any country except Israel, and the bilateral military ties are deep and varied. But Barack Obama as US president, together with his vice-President Joe Biden, did not approve of the military coup that brought Sisi to power in Egypt, and condemned his crackdown on opponents of the new regime. Biden made it clear from the start of his presidency that he was going to hassle Sisi on his human rights record.
“We will bring our values with us into every relationship that we have across the globe,” said State Department spokesman Ned Price in March 2021. “That includes with Egypt.”
On the very day that Bennett and Sisi met, it was reported that the US would withhold $130 million in aid unless Egypt improved its human rights. On September 14 the State Department notified Congress that it intended to do so until Egypt meets specific standards.
The measure is not the expression of moral outrage that it appears. $130 million is a drop in the ocean of the $1.3 billion in security aid the US annually provides to Egypt. It is, moreover, less than half the $300 million on which Congress annually places human rights restrictions (usually rescinded at the request of the State Department). The step, it turns out, is nothing more than a gesture by the Biden administration to placate those voices on the left of the Democratic party demanding tough action on Sisi’s human rights record. They were unplacated.
The warm meeting with Israel’s prime minister was a way of Sisi reminding the US that Egypt is an irreplaceable player in maintaining stability in the region. Sisi has proved his value to US interests in a number of ways. The 11-day conflict between Hamas and Israel in May was resolved as a result of Egypt acting as honest broker – an outcome not originally foreseen by Washington. Subsequently Sisi has placed himself in a key role in the Gaza situation by facilitating discussion between the main players – Hamas, Israel and Qatar. Following the meeting with Sisi Bennett’s office mentioned Egypt’s role in maintaining stability and calm in Gaza.
Egypt hopes for Israel’s good offices in supporting the continuation of US military aid, and also in the fraught situation regarding GERD. A dispute between Ethiopia, source of the head waters of the Blue Nile, and Sudan and Egypt, whose economic and social existence depend on its waters, remains to be resolved. The operation of the giant dam has the potential to disrupt and reduce the normal flow of the Nile through those countries, and an agreement needs to be hammered out. Egypt believes that Israel has sway in both Washington and Addis Ababa, and could be the key to bringing Ethiopia to the negotiating table.
Some immediate results followed the cordial Bennett-Sisi encounter. Travel and transport links between Egypt and Israel received an immediate boost. The Taba crossing at Eilat, an entry point for car-bound Israeli tourists into Egypt, became fully operational with extended opening hours and no limit on the number of entry permits. In addition it was announced that from October Egyptair would begin operating several flights a week between Cairo and Tel Aviv.
All of which indicates that the direction of travel towards closer cooperation and mutual support between Egypt and Israel has been set, and the first steps taken. But to convert the cold peace of the past 42 years into a genuinely friendly relationship between the two nations involves a long and difficult journey. Let us hope we are on our way.
The writer is Middle East correspondent for Eurasia Review. His latest book is: “Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020”. Follow him at: www.a-mid-east-journal.blogspot.com