An Egyptian soldier stands near the Egyptian national flag and the Israeli flag at the Taba crossing between Egypt and Israel.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
When President Trump embarked on his first international trip, Middle East watchers sought signals of progress on his administration’s top two regional priorities: reviving the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, and tackling Islamic radicalism in the name of increased American security. As the United States continues to seek ways to make good on those priorities, an obvious diplomatic partner emerges in the Republic of Egypt, whose relationship with Israel has been flourishing, and whose security and defense cooperation is increasingly positive for America and the West.
Egypt was the first Arab nation to recognize Israel, in 1979, and despite many internal and external challenges, the bilateral relationship has matured significantly in recent years. Driven together by common threats along their shared border, the two countries have been quietly increasing cooperation: sharing the goal of defeating ISIS in the Sinai Peninsula, jointly destroying tunnels that feed weapons into Gaza, and even allowing access to each other’s territory beyond that required by the Camp David peace accords. While direct domestic security concerns may drive some of this reality, there is a broader geostrategic picture – one that is highly relevant for the United States and its allies in the Middle East.
Plainly stated, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has made it his top priority to defeat extremism in Egypt and increase safety and security in the region, relying on Israel as a strategic partner. Sisi started by targeting the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Cairo has historically been viewed as the base of the Muslim Brotherhood, and thus the birthplace of much of the region’s radical Islamic activity, including inspiring Hamas, inciting against Anwar Sadat, and motivating other radicals across the Islamic world.
Fighting the Muslim Brotherhood and eradicating it in Egypt is not only essential for delivering increased security for Egypt, but is an important step in freeing the whole of Arab civilization from radical Islamic terrorism.
During his visit to the region, President Trump clearly sought to bolster the emerging “moderate axis” of Arab countries seeking to work behind the scenes with Israel to counter common threats. Egypt is indispensable in any bid to rally efforts in the Middle East, and Sisi’s offer for his country to act as a broker between Israel and the Palestinian Authority could be useful at a time when the Trump administration is seeking to revive peace talks.
Another of Sisi’s moves was the clear decision to divorce himself from the relationship that Egypt had with Hamas under president Mohamed Morsi’s administration. Born out of Sisi’s view shared with the United States that Hamas is a terrorist organization and a strategic threat to the region, the Egyptian president has begun placing significant pressure on it to take stronger security action in the Gaza-Sinai border area. His actions have resulted in crackdowns on cross-border tunnels, high level security meetings with Palestinian officials on border security, and eventually, cutting ties with Hamas altogether. While the Egyptian government may in the future feel it must work with Hamas and make concessions in the areas in question, the Egyptian leader has clearly prioritized his warming of relations with Israel over the Palestinians in security-related matters.
The United States-led 2015 Iran nuclear deal also created new divisions in the Middle East that present challenges to America’s security priorities, and Egypt’s positioning is important. For what appears to be the first time since the First Gulf War of 1991, Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have a common enemy and have pledged their support despite inconvenient historical and geopolitical tensions such as falling oil prices and the divisive Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As a result, the three countries look toward cooperative opportunities and ally in opposition to rapidly expanding Iranian influence.
More broadly, Egypt is important because one in four Arabs is Egyptian and because it exerts a strong influence culturally, politically and militarily throughout the region, providing a security umbrella to Arab nations that are rallying together against a common enemy. Whether you look at United States policy for addressing the devastating civil war in Syria or the failed state of Libya, Egypt can play a uniquely impactful role in mediating between warring factions.
In my 25 years at the Foreign Ministry, I seldom heard the Middle East described as lacking in complexity.
But as one who had the privilege of working for Israel’s chief negotiator with the Palestinians, and witnessing the signing of the Oslo Accords at the White House, I believe Egypt’s new strategic position provides opportunities for the United States and Israel to leverage US rapprochement with Saudi Arabia in order to advance key security and economic interests. As by far the most populous Arab nation, the host of an internationally strategic waterway, and a regime that is moving to get its house in order at home while actively reaching out to US allies in its region, Sisi’s Egypt, which is making real changes of advantage to America, therefore merits deeper attention and engagement from the United States.The writer is a global distinguished professor of international relations at New York University and a veteran of Israel’s foreign service. He was Israel’s longest serving consul-general in New York (2010-2016).