An Egyptian soldier stands near the Egyptian national flag and the Israeli flag at the Taba crossing between Egypt and Israel.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry’s surprise visit to Jerusalem this week presents Israel with a unique opportunity, which, if handled improperly, can turn into a liability.
In his public comments, Shoukry, the first Egyptian foreign minister to visit Israel in nine years, focused on the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. The burden is now partially on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to show the Egyptians he is serious about his declaration that he is willing to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas “anytime, anywhere.”
Israel cannot afford to spurn the Arab country with whom it enjoys the highest level of cooperation and closest ties, particularly when that country is the Middle East’s most populous and, arguably, the most influential of Arab nations.
Israel must enter into bilateral talks under Egyptian and Jordanian mediation with good faith and a real willingness to make headway, if not on the creation of a Palestinian State along the pre-Six Day War lines with east Jerusalem as its capital as outlined by Shoukry, then on real confidence-building steps that would lead to calm in the territories and improve the atmosphere between Israelis and Palestinians.
Issues that are likely to come up in such direct talks would include the transfer of more civil powers to the Palestinians, increased cooperation on environmental issues and steps that could strengthen the Palestinians economy.
Israel has much to gain from Egypt’s decision to give a more public face to the cooperation – mostly in the field of security – that has been going on behind the scenes between Jerusalem and Cairo for more than two years. It could lead to closer ties with the Sunni Bloc that developed in the face of the threats presented by Iran and Islamic State.
Sunni countries such as Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Jordan and Morocco share common interests in the fight against Shi’ite encroachment in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and in the Persian Gulf.
But, in exchange for Egypt’s public show of renewed relations with the Jewish State, Netanyahu must make a public gesture of his own vis-a-vis the Palestinians.
Admittedly, the motivations behind Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi’s decision to send Shoukry to Jerusalem are many.
After consolidating his power at home in the wake of the forced removal of the Muslim Brotherhood from power, Sissi wants to reassert Egyptian hegemony in the Middle East. He apparently feels confident enough to gamble on going more public with Egyptian-Israeli ties despite strong opposition from what remains of the Islamist establishment and nationalists still faithful to the Nasserist pan-Arab ideology.
But Sissi must show concrete results from his efforts.
Sissi is also concerned about the reconciliation agreement signed between Turkey and Israel, which includes a clause allowing the Turks to become a major supplier of goods to Gaza.
Egypt might not want to be put in a position where it continues to impose an embargo on Gaza while Turkey develops trade relations. For its part, Israel already has taken steps to improve ties with Egypt, which was permitted to break the Camp David Accords prohibiting the entry of Egyptian troops into the Sinai. Both troops and air support are now operating there.
Israel also has agreed to Egypt’s transfer to Saudi Arabia of two small islands at the entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba – Sanafir and Tiran – to Saudi Arabia, even though this could threaten Israel’s continued access to the Straits of Tiran.
More importantly, Egypt is concerned about the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam that Ethiopia is building on the Nile. Egypt stands to lose large amounts of water – at least temporarily – which will seriously impact the amount of electricity it produces from the Aswan Dam.
Israel has leverage in Ethiopia that Sissi wants Netanyahu to use to Egypt’s benefit.
If Israel can show genuine willingness to make headway with the Palestinians, this could lead to improved relations not only with Egypt but with other “moderate” Sunni states, as well. However, if Israel is intransigent, this could have negative impact on Egypt’s newfound readiness for public displays of cooperation with the Jewish State such as the one witnessed this week in Jerusalem.