Three's company: Israel, Turkey, and Egypt

Can Israel mend ties with Ankara without alienating Cairo?

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (photo credit: REUTERS)
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Last month, the director of the CIA, John Brennan, held a secret meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and his counterpart, the director of Egyptian Intelligence, Maj.-Gen.Khaled Fawzy. During the meeting, Brennan promised to increase CIA aid to Egypt to bolster its struggle against Islamic State terrorist activity in Sinai.
Brennan’s visit is yet another indicator that the US administration is making an effort to improve relations with Cairo following a few cool years that were the result of President Barack Obama’s opposition to Sisi’s ouster two years ago of president Mohamed Morsi, who, sponsored by the Muslim Brotherhood, was chosen in free and democratic elections.
The Paris-based website Intelligence Online recently reported that, up until now, the Egyptian military has mainly relied on support from Israel and France: France, by supplying Egypt with satellite images; and Israel, with intercepts. The most important signals intelligence body in IDF Military Intelligence is Unit 8200. The Shin Bet and the Mossad also have units that specialize in eavesdropping and the deciphering of information.
The Shin Bet also has a special unit that for a number of years has been actively involved in the prevention of terrorism originating in Sinai.
Shin Bet head Yoram Cohen’s fiveyear term is scheduled to end in just three months’ time and it’s not clear yet whether his term will be extended for another year, as is permitted by law. Cohen is a familiar figure in the Egyptian intelligence community, as he visited Cairo a number of times during and after Operation Protective Edge to discuss activity related to Hamas and Gaza.
According to the division of labor of the three branches of Israeli intelligence, the Mossad is responsible for contacts with counterpart intelligence organizations. In the past, there were numerous reports in the media about meetings between Mossad leaders and their Egyptian counterparts, and visits from both sides in both countries were common events. Gen. Omar Suleiman, for example, was known to have visited Israel.
It’s no secret that since Sisi came into power, Egypt and Israel have been coordinating on an extraordinarily high level regarding security issues. As part of the two countries’ joint struggle against Hamas and Islamic State, Israel has allowed Egypt to bring many more troops into the Sinai Peninsula than is stipulated in the peace agreement they signed together in 1979.
Egypt and Israel are keen on this cooperation, due to their shared fear of Iran’s increasing strength and its attempts to destabilize Sunni regimes in the Middle East, both directly, through its intelligence agents, and indirectly, through Hezbollah. In the past, Egyptian security services captured a number of Iranian and Hezbollah terrorist networks.
Nonetheless, this intimate relationship is not just a strategic asset but also an obstacle, as it makes it difficult for Israel to progress in its efforts to reach a settlement with Gaza and to improve its relationship with Turkey.
It’s in Israel’s best interests to ease the plight of the residents of the Gaza Strip, and to put an end to the siege (or their sense of siege).
The people of Gaza are currently receiving most of their supplies and goods from Israel. Every day, about 800 trucks pass through the border crossings. But the border is effectively closed to the movement of people, except for humanitarian reasons, such as for medical treatment; religious reasons, such as for Christians on Christmas, or Muslims going on pilgrimage to Mecca, or students going to study at universities.
The Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt is closed almost all year round. In all of 2015, the Rafah crossing was open to people for a total of less than 30 (nonconsecutive) days.
What this means is that the people responsible for restricting Gazans and who are imposing a tight siege on Gaza are actually the Egyptians, not the Israelis.
But this fact has not made things easier for the Israeli authorities. The Israelis’ concern is that in the end, this sense of suffocation will become so great that, against its will, Hamas (Ismail Haniyeh, the vice chairman of Hamas’s political bureau, said this week that his organization has no desire for conflict with Israel) will fire rockets or carry out some other act of terrorism, such as an offensive using the tunnels they’ve been digging under Israeli territory.
The IDF leadership is of the opinion that Hamas does not want to engage in a war against Israel, and that it fears Israel’s strength, which is acting as a deterrence. This, however, is not preventing Hamas from rebuilding its military capabilities and digging tunnels, some of which apparently have come very close to, or possibly even infiltrated, Israeli territory. Hamas is building outposts along the border and producing longer-range rockets with enhanced precision.
What the upper echelons at the IDF fear is that, in the face of this deterrence, and despite the Hamas leadership’s (political and military, local and international) desire to avoid another conflict with Israel, one small incident could create a spark that would ignite the whole area, and then the situation might escalate into a full-fledged war in 2016.
Against this background, the Israeli security leadership has suggested a number of ideas on how to improve the living situation of the Palestinians in Gaza, to allow them greater freedom of movement in the West Bank, and to supply them with greater quantities of building materials so they can repair their homes and infrastructure that were ruined in the war that took Turkey are prepared to finance this rebuilding.
One option that was suggested was to allow goods to be unloaded at a port in Cyprus, which would then undergo security checks supervised by a combination of Israeli and international forces.
Only after this check would the goods be allowed to be transferred to Gaza. Another suggestion was to build a floating port near the coast that could be connected by a bridge to Gaza.
The Turkish request to allow its government some sort of a foothold in Gaza is one of its prerequisites for rapprochement with Jerusalem. This request comes among many others that have already been agreed to in order to improve Israel’s relations with Turkey, which have been strained since the Mavi Marmara incident that took place five-and-a-half years ago. The issues were worked out during meetings between Israeli lawyer Yossi Ciechanover and Yossi Cohen, who was the national security head (and who will continue to handle the Turkey case as the head of the Mossad) and senior officials in the Turkish government.
The prerequisites for rapprochement include an apology by Israel (which was already given in a telephone call between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Turkish President Recep Erdogan) and Israel’s agreement to pay $25 million in compensation to the nine families of the Turkish nationals who were killed on the Mavi Marmara. At the same time, the Turkish government has announced that it is willing to pass a law in parliament that will prevent Israeli officers from being prosecuted for war crimes, expel Hamas headquarters and senior Hamas officials from its territory and increase supervision of their whereabouts.
During Ciechanover and Cohen’s sessions with the Turkish officials, Israel agreed, at least in part, to Turkey’s demand that it be allowed to open a representative office in Gaza. Egypt then immediately expressed its objection to such a move, and now Israel is caught in a bit of a bind. On the one hand, Israel wants to improve its relations with Turkey, but on the other hand, Israel’s strategic relationship with the Sisi government is of the utmost importance.
At this point in time, Israel believes its connection with the Egyptians is more important than the possible renewal of relations with Turkey.
To make matters worse, when Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon was visiting this week in Greece – Israel’s newest ally which filled the void left by Turkey – he accused Turkey of supporting Islamic State. By saying this, he’s just made it even harder for Israel to mend fences with Ankara.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.