Monday,23 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1307, (11- 17 August 2016)
Monday,23 July, 2018
Issue 1307, (11- 17 August 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Shifting relations with Israel

Sadat’s much-remarked visit to Jerusalem was a kind of “escape forward” in the face of domestic woes. It would be as disastrous now as then to repeat that mistake, writes Hassan Nafaa

Al-Ahram Weekly

Considerable evidence suggests that relations between Egypt and Israel have steadily developed during the past two years and that they may be in the process of shifting from conventional cooperation to the level of strategic alliance. Foremost evidence is the following:

- Israel’s agreement to surpass the security arrangements stipulated in the peace accord that has bound the two countries since 1979 and did not oppose the presence of an Egyptian force larger in size and more heavily armed than stipulated under the agreement in the part of Sinai designated as Area C, which is adjacent to the Israeli border.  - An unprecedented level of security coordination between the two countries. This was reached after terrorist groups in Sinai declared their affiliation with the Islamic State group (IS) and proclaimed Sinai as a “province” of IS. - Egypt’s recent agreement to allow Israeli drones not only to fly over Sinai in order to monitor the movements of terrorist groups but also to take part in combat operations against those groups there.

- The appointment of a new Israeli ambassador to Cairo and the return of the Egyptian ambassador to Tel Aviv after a several-year long hiatus.

- President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s announcement of a new initiative to revive the Middle East peace process during which he stated that he was ready to establish a “warm peace” with Israel in order to reach a comprehensive settlement to the Palestinian question.

- The Egyptian foreign minister’s visit, a few weeks ago, to present this initiative during an official trip to Israel — the first of its kind since 2007.

I recently published an article on the implications of Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri’s visit to Israel in which I concluded that some ruling elites in the Arab world fear that this region is headed for further collapse and that their determination to safeguard their interests at any price has led them to call for a revision of Arab positions on the Arab relationship with Israel with an eye toward shifting it from an adversarial or even neutral footing to a cooperative footing, and perhaps from there to an alliance in the face of common threats such as terrorist groups and Iran. It appears that I did not overstate my case.

Beneath the title, “Normalisation and the new Egyptian peace with Israel”, appearing in Al-Shorouk newspaper on 30 July 2016, an Egyptian academic called for a restructuring of Egyptian-Israeli relations. This relationship should move beyond security coordination and even “normalisation” in its conventional sense, he wrote, adding that elevating it to the stage of a “strategic alliance” was not only possible but desirable as it would serve Egyptian interests and, therefore, should be seen as a goal we should strive to attain. In defence of his call, he argued, firstly, that Israel holds the keys to the relationship with the US and that it is difficult for Egypt to develop its relationship with the world’s foremost superpower without Israeli approval and auspices.

Secondly, he held that Israel is a modern, scientifically and technologically and economically advanced civic state and has much to offer Egypt in numerous domains. He argued, thirdly, that developing a formula for a special relationship with Israel would give Egypt a broader margin of manoeuvrability and greater freedom of movement regionally and internationally.

The article contained nothing new that merits pause for contemplation or rebuttal. The ideas are very familiar and date back to the age of president Anwar Al-Sadat who cited them in defence of his decisions to visit Jerusalem and to conclude a separate peace with Israel. Those decisions were among the chief factors that accelerated the collapse of the Arab order and enabled Israel to emerge as a regional power after, moreover, the Egyptian army had succeeded in stripping Israel of its myth of invincibility in the 1973 war. So the ideas are old hat and they have been put to the test and proven not only failures but dangerous to Egypt and the Arab world as a whole. It is sufficient in this regard to recall that huge propaganda campaign that was launched to market Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem and that painted rainbows of golden honey, stability and prosperity never seen before in history. Of course, 40 years after that ill-fated presidential visit official Egyptian reports, published by the national statistics centre, state that more the 28 per cent of the people in Egypt live below the poverty line and that in some parts of Upper Egypt the figure is as high as 60 per cent.

Not only did the author of the above mentioned article call for a strategic alliance between Egypt and Israel, he also accused Egyptian intellectual and political elites — especially those opposed to normalisation — of not being sufficiently aware of what is happening in Israel. Accordingly, he urged his readers to put more effort into trying to understand what is happening in that state with which he seems so deeply infatuated. But he appears to have overlooked a basic fact which is that an alert follower of what is happening in Israel does not limit himself to the texts of the platforms of its political parties or reports issued by its study centres and think tanks. He links the dots between those platforms and reports with his knowledge of the nature and goals of the Zionist project so as to determine whether the expansionist, belligerent, and indeed racist nature of that project permits us to delineate a space of overlapping interests and shared concerns that can be used as a platform for the realisation of stability and prosperity in the region.

I cannot rule out the possibility that the opinions in that article reflect, one way or another, the prevalent government outlook in Egypt. This is the disturbing part of the question. If my deduction is correct, then the steps taken by the government over the past two years to develop the relationship with Israel are merely the beginning of a faster and more ominous drive. In this regard we should bear in mind Egypt’s position on the Tiran and Sanafir issue, the aim of which is not just to transfer sovereignty over these islands to Saudi Arabia but also to lure Saudi Arabia into indirect normalisation with Israel by officially binding it to the security arrangements stipulated in the Egyptian-Israeli peace accord. Effectively this would broaden the scope of the Egyptian-Israeli bilateral peace treaty to include Riyadh without Israel having to offer anything in return.

As I read the developments in the Egyptian-Israeli relationship, this relationship is a one-way street and reflects the Egyptian regime’s need for Israel but not the reverse. Israel believes that the Egyptian regime needs Tel Aviv in order to improve its relations with Washington, to help out in Egypt’s battle against terrorism in Sinai and in Libya to the west, and to soften Addis Ababa’s position in the conflict over the period needed to fill the reservoir behind the Grand Renaissance Dam. As Israel is not in the habit of giving services free of charge to anyone, we can expect that — in exchange for its assistance — it will ask for the following:

- Support for efforts to modify the Arab Peace Initiative adopted by the Arab Summit in Beirut in 2002, especially the points concerning Palestinian refugees, Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.

- Normalisation with other Arab states, especially the Gulf states, the moment that Israel announces that it has accepted, in principle, the Arab Peace Initiative and begins negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.

- No linkage between normalisation with Israel and Israeli withdrawal from the territories occupied in 1967, or with the prior establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

If that is the price tag, it is far too costly and Egypt should not agree to it because it will precipitate more instability in the region and perhaps propel the region toward an all-out war against Iran in which Israel would hope to take part as an ally of the “Sunni” states in the region.

No one can dispute that Egypt is passing through a particularly fraught period in its lengthy history. Some maintain that its current crisis is fundamentally economic in nature. In my opinion, it is essentially political and our economic straits are one of the symptoms of the political crisis, not one of its causes. But the way out of this crisis is not to have unconditional relations with Israel or any other international power. Rather, what we need to do above all is to formulate a new political vision centred around self-dependence, conduct comprehensive national reconciliation, and build a new political order in which all can participate and that excludes no one but forces that take up arms against society or that work to promote extremism and incite sectarian strife.

In January 1977, the downtrodden masses took to the streets and cried for the downfall of president Sadat in response to his decision to lift subsidies on basic foodstuffs. That cry wounded the pride of the man who saw himself as the hero of the October 1973 war but was incapable of fathoming the magnitude of his errors in managing the political battle that followed that war. In that context, his decision to visit Jerusalem was a kind of escape forward. Will Al-Sisi’s Egypt reproduce the escape forward policy in order to safeguard current conditions that resulted from mistaken policies? Or will it realise that the time has come for a real policy change?

I do not oppose the need for Egypt to honour its international obligations. I do, however, oppose handing free gifts to Israel. Peace in the region can only occur through real and effective international pressure on the Israeli government.

The writer is professor of political science at Cairo University.

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