THE EGYPTIAN foreign minister brought a breath of fresh air to the decades-long Arab-Israeli conflict when he stated unequivocally on August 21 that Israel could not be considered a terrorist state. This further step toward closer relations between Egypt and Israel resonated throughout the Arab world, where accusing the Jewish state of terror against the Palestinians is a basic propaganda tenet.
Sameh Shoukry, meeting high school students in his office, was asked why Israel’s actions against the Palestinians were not considered terrorism. The exchange between the students and the minister was recorded and posted by the Egyptian Foreign Ministry on its Twitter account. His answer was factual and devoid of the accusations against Israel, which are automatic in the Arab world. He is quoted as having said, “You can look at it from the perspective of a regime of force,” going on to explain that “certainly in accordance with its history it has a society in which the element of security is strong.” And then he added something startling, “From Israel’s perspective, since 1948 that society had faced many challenges that have instilled in its national security doctrine its control of land and border crossings.”
In fact, said the Egyptian foreign minister, “there is no evidence showing a link between Israel and armed terrorist groups.”
This can be seen as a new way of viewing Israel and its place in the region in the face of Arab attitudes, the Islamic establishments and nationalist elites still refusing to acknowledge its legitimacy and opposing it furiously. For not only did Shoukry distance himself from qualifying Israeli activities as acts of terror, that is, illegitimate and deserving of unreserved condemnations; he mentioned the year 1948 – that is,the year of the proclamation of the State of Israel and the war of independence, both sources of the nakba or “disaster” of the Palestinians and of all Arabs – as a well-known historical fact. And it was because of the challenges that resulted from that historical fact that Israel had to react forcibly ever since.
Shoukry’s words made headlines in Egypt – though many media outlets chose to ignore them, including those affiliated with the regime who were reluctant to deal with such potentially explosive declarations. Indeed, the following day a Foreign Ministry spokesman accused “several papers” of having distorted what had actually been said and of falsely reporting that the minister had declared that the killing of Palestinian children was not terrorism.
Furthermore, he said, those papers were guilty of incitement against the well-known views of Egypt, which has championed Palestinian rights in the past, the present, and would forever champion them. He stressed that the students had not asked specific questions concerning the killing of Palestinian children but had simply voiced a theoretical question as to why the international community did not define Israeli actions as acts of terror. The minister, the spokesman said, had replied that there was no legal international definition regarding acts committed by nations.
In other words, the Foreign Ministry did not try to distance itself from what the minister had said, and simply accused the media of having distorted his words.
Taken in the context of the evolution of the relations between Egypt and Israel, Shoukry’s comments can be seen as yet another step toward closer links between the countries. It is well known that there is strong intelligence and security cooperation between Israel and Egypt based, among other considerations, on the common threat of Islamic State – Sinai Province. If it is not defeated in Egypt, it will attack Israel directly.
In the past, the group has launched missiles across the border and was responsible for a cross border terrorist attack near Eilat in 2011 in which eight Israelis were killed.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu openly declares that he has frequent conversations with Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. Such is the background of the gradual rapprochement between the two countries: Egypt has sent an ambassador to Tel Aviv and the Embassy of Israel in Cairo is open again. Sisi has also said that he is ready to help promote negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians and his foreign minister recently made a visit to Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s envoys regularly travel to Cairo for high-level talks. It can be safely assumed that they include a number of subjects and not solely the Palestinian question, which is far from being Sisi’s first priority.
There can be no mistake: The Egyptian president is behind all these moves. Sisi has launched an all-out effort to develop his country and put it on the path of sustainable economic growth. Cooperation with Israel is part of this vision.
Sisi is a staunch Muslim but has always shunned religious extremism. He has been remarkably moderate concerning Israel ever since he became a public figure, that is, when he was appointed minister of defense by the since ousted Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi in the mistaken belief that this pious general would help bring about the rule of the Brotherhood with a complicit army.
SISI REFRAINS from attacking or even condemning Israel. It was made clear from the first interviews he gave the press even before his election to the presidency. It took several questions concerning his views on the Palestinian issue before he succinctly said that there should be a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.
At the same time the Egyptian president has been pushing for toning down extremism in Islam. He has demanded that the clerics of al-Azhar Mosque undertake a reform of some of the more extreme expressions of religious dialogue. The Education Ministry has also been tasked with removing from textbooks elements or episodes encouraging religious extremism, more specifically those extolling Jihad – such as the wars of Saladin and of Akba Ben-Nafea, who conquered large territories in Africa. Also expunged were some texts disparaging the Jews, but not all. Chapters dealing with the peace agreement with Israel were expanded; the new modern history book of Egypt has a picture of Menachem Begin next to Anwar el Sadat, together with significant extracts of the peace treaty.
In spite of these encouraging developments, there are those who are steadfast in their opposition to Israel. They are mostly to be found in the old elites – the Islamic establishment and what is left of the nationalistic and pan-Arabic movements.
There is still a prevalent belief among the Egyptian public that Israel is an enemy bent on harming Egypt. When Sisi decided to build a second canal alongside the Suez Canal to double its capacity and let a greater number of vessels through, a number of articles “explained” that the move was intended to spike Israel’s projected Ashdod-Eilat railway, allegedly intended to draw traffic away from the canal. When Prime Minister Netanyahu toured East African countries some weeks ago, media in Egypt “explained” that it was in order to encourage agriculture in countries situated up river on the Nile, which would then need more water thus diminishing what will be left for Egypt. When parliament member Tawfik Okasha had “the temerity” to host the Israeli ambassador for dinner, he was expelled from the parliament.
And of late an Egyptian judoka was roundly berated for agreeing to a match with an Israeli opponent – and for losing.
No wonder then that the Egyptian president is proceeding cautiously. Warmer relations with Israel are of paramount importance, but he has no wish for a confrontation with elites he needs to support his economic policy, especially since at the moment it has ushered in a measure of austerity which is highly unpopular.
He has apparently chosen a more circuitous route. A few months ago he announced that he wanted to help restart dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians, a perfectly legitimate long-term preoccupation for Egypt, which aspires to peace in the region.
However, it does not appear that Sisi has formulated his own peace initiative. He has said time and time again that he accepts all initiatives on the table, the French initiative included. There are some in Israel and in the West who believe that he is in favor of a pragmatic Sunni block, which would include Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states; together with Egypt they would sponsor an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue. But it is hard to believe that these countries would be able and willing to convince Palestinians to change their avowed strategy of non-recognition of the Jewish state and renounce the right of return.
Yet promoting the Palestinian issue affords an opportunity for Sisi to keep an open dialogue with Israel and discuss ways and means of expanding what really interests him: economic relations to take advantage of Israel’s technology and cooperation. One can therefore cautiously hope for some further – but limited – improvements in the relations between the two countries in the coming months. Zvi Mazel, a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is a former ambassador to Egypt, Romania and Sweden
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