Gas to Egypt is great, but unlikely alone to thaw 'cold peace' - analysis

The gas deal adds a very significant economic component to the Israel-Egypt relationship.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks on in front of the Leviathan gas platform (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks on in front of the Leviathan gas platform
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Some eight years after trade disputes and terrorist sabotage led Egypt to stop supplying Israel with natural gas, the fuel began flowing in the opposite direction, with natural gas from Israel being exported to Egypt.
Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, who was instrumental in making sure that the natural resource was extracted from the depths of the Mediterranean Sea and sold to Egypt and Jordan, gushed that this was a historic day.
He quoted Egyptian Energy Minister Tareq el-Molla as saying that this was the greatest economic cooperation between the two countries since the signing of the peace treaty in 1979.
“The natural gas does not only reduce our pollution, does not only provide us with huge income, it also strengthens the peace axis in the Middle East,” Steinitz said in an Army Radio interview.
A rare joint statement between the two men said the beginning of the flow of gas is “an important development that will serve the economic interests of both sides.”
Certainly, therefore, Steinitz does have what to gush about. The deal will lead to a huge infusion of cash into Israel. Anything that ties the two countries together – such as a business deal of this magnitude – is important, and as a result of Israel’s significant natural gas fields, it will for the first time join a regional organization: the newly-formed Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum made up of Israel, Egypt, Italy, Greece, Cyprus, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.
The flow of the gas to Egypt is important because it adds a significant economic component to the Israeli-Egyptian relationship which, since the signing of the peace treaty in 1979, has been primarily one-dimensional, dealing with military and security issues.
The relations at the top of the pyramid, between Israel’s prime minister and Egypt’s president, have generally been good, and the cooperation between the security and military officials has traditionally been very strong. As Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said last year in a 60 Minutes interview, security cooperation between the two countries is as close as it has ever been.
But that is pretty much where it ended.
There was some economic cooperation, foremost in the forms of Qualifying Industrial Zones, whereby Egyptian products are allowed tariff free into the US if they include a certain percentage of Israel components, but that was not too consequential.
The gas deal, however, changes that, and adds a very significant economic component to the relationship. And that is important.
But as important as that is – and as beneficial as that will be for the Israeli economy and potentially for the Egyptian economy if indeed the deal is part of a plan to turn Egypt into an energy hub for Europe – it is not enough. What is still lacking is the people-to-people ties, the trickling down of the cooperation onto the street. That has not happened, and the coverage of the gas deal in the Egyptian media on Wednesday nowhere matched the type of “historic day” coverage it received in the Israeli press.
When Israel and Egypt signed their peace agreement in 1979, a deal that has withstood the travails of the Middle East for 40 years, there was a dream in Israel that it would not only be an end to war with the Egyptians, but would usher in a new period of tourist, academic and cultural cooperation that would lead to peace between the peoples. The dream in Jerusalem was that not only would the Egyptian government recognizes Israel’s utility, but that the people would actually like us.
That hasn’t materialized. Israel’s visions of full buses of nationals from each country crossing the border numerous times a day, and of academic cooperation and Egyptian students studying at Israeli universities, failed to materialize. Instead, what we got was a stable peace agreement, which on its own is an achievement of tremendous strategic importance for Israel – yet no trickle down effect.
Will the gas deal do it? Doubtful. This is a process that has to come from the top, and so far, there has been no indication that the Egyptian media is changing its nasty tune on Israel.
Last year, a small scandal erupted amid rumors that the English football club Liverpool, the club featuring Egyptian football star Mohamed Salah, was considering signing Israeli striker Moanes Dabour, a 27-year-old Arab-Israeli. (It never did.)
Tamer Amin, who hosts a talk show on Egypt’s Al-Nahar television station, addressed the issue on one of his programs.
“Let’s talk about the not so great news which has been going around for the past 48 hours: Liverpool F.C. plans to sign an Israeli striker to the team, God forbid,” he said, according to a MEMRI translation of the program.
“It has also been said that Mohamed Salah, our esteemed Egyptian Arab star, said to the club’s management in a friendly manner that they should not sign this striker because he would not be able to play with or alongside him. He said that if they insist on signing him, he might leave the team.”
Amin explained why he thought Salah needed to quit the club if the Israeli was signed. “They would have to attend training camps together, practice together, see each other every day, eat together, drink together,” he bemoaned. “They would have to work together on the field, exchanging passes and so on. If the Israeli striker, God forbid, scores a goal, Salah would have to hug him and celebrate with him. And if Salah scores a goal, the other one – that insolent person – would have to go celebrate with him, hug him, and so on. It is a big problem.”
Amin summed up what he thought the Egyptian people felt about Israel. “Every Egyptian, regardless of the peace agreements and all the policies, we – as people – are completely cut off [from Israel]. There isn’t any normalization with Israel. We feel hatred towards the Zionist entity, especially because of what they do to the Palestinians, and that’s without mentioning the dark history of their occupation of our lands and their killing of our sons.”
That sentiment, unfortunately, is not a solitary one in the Egyptian media. It is not merely the rantings of one rather controversial Egyptian television host.
Over the next 15 years, Israel is set to sell 85.3 billion cubic meters (bcm) of liquified natural gas to Egypt, which is likely to bring benefits even to Amin. It will take much more than gas, however, to change attitudes like his. It will take a decision by the Egyptian government at the highest levels to begin taking steps to alter the public discourse about Israel, and to set into motion a process whereby the peace finally starts to trickle down.