Crossing the Nile: Egypt’s return to a role in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking

After several years of uncertainty, Sisi sought to return Egypt to stability and a renewed role in the region.

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu meets Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry in Jerusalem on Sunday (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu meets Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry in Jerusalem on Sunday
On November 15, 2012, Washington-insider Sidney Blumenthal wrote an email to secretary of state Hillary Clinton sharing information from sources with “direct access” to Western intelligence services. The day before Israel had killed Hamas terrorist mastermind Ahmed Jabari in Gaza. Now it looked like fighting would increase between the Gaza Strip and Israel.
Egyptian leader Mohamed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood member, said he was concerned that he was “unable to exert significant influence” over Hamas and that fighting might spiral out of control. What if Egypt were drawn in, the Egyptian worried. General Abdel Fatah Sisi assured Morsi things were under control. “Military Intelligence officers were meeting secretly with their Israeli counterparts” and Israel had agreed Egypt might play a positive role in mediating the conflict. According to the report Sisi understood Jabari had been killed for his role in kidnapping IDF soldier Gilad Schalit. Morsi felt pressured by Islamists to stand up to Israel, but Sisi expressed concern. Morsi was “a new leader with a precarious hold on his country which creates a dangerous environment,” wrote Blumenthal. “Al-Sisi has not shared this particular view with the Egyptian President.”
A little over seven months later, Morsi was gone and Sisi was in power. It’s clear now from the secret dispatches that Sisi feared for the security of Egypt, and was deeply concerned over sectarian tensions and the rise of Islamist and terrorist groups, especially in Sinai. Sisi’s first year in power was spent shoring up his support and removing the tentacles of the Muslim Brotherhood from power. In late May 2014 he was elected president by an overwhelming majority.
After several years of uncertainty, Sisi sought to return Egypt to stability and a renewed role in the region.
BEFORE THE Arab Spring overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in February of 2011, Egypt had worked closely with Israel on security issues. For instance, according to a US diplomatic cable, in 2009 Mubarak warned US General David Petraeus that Qatar and Syria were paying Hamas $50 million to keep captive IDF soldier Schalit captive.
Mubarak obviously wanted Schalit released. After his overthrow, there was a hiatus in relations with Israel as Egypt turned inward.
Two months later he got his first chance to play a role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when war broke out in Gaza in July. Mahmoud Salem at Al-Monitor claims the Gaza war gave Sisi a major victory. It “changed the balance of power in the Middle East conflict, sidelined Qatar, Turkey and Hamas, placed all the cards in the hands of Israel, the Gulf States [minus Qatar] and Egypt and none of them gave any weight to the Obama administration, which was unprecedented.” Turkey had had close relations with Morsi, whom Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan viewed as a fellow-traveler in the world of political Islam. After 2013 relations between Turkey and Egypt soured to a kind of cold war.
This outcome was the result of a view that the US was weakening its support for its traditional Egyptian and Saudi allies in the region. This was symbolically evident in the snubbing of President Barack Obama by Saudi Arabia in April of this year when he was greeted by low-level functionaries on the tarmac during a visit to the kingdom. Sisi had been dismayed by the US administration’s policies on Egypt. Documents show that Sisi warned the Americans about threats to US interests in Egypt in 2012, and it seems he was not given credit for his attempt to care for the Americans.
In March of 2015 Sisi gave two interviews in which he spoke of his interest in working with Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Bret Stephens claimed “Egypt’s security cooperation with Israel has never been closer.”
Sisi told The Washington Post he speaks to Netanyahu “a lot” and that he wanted to achieve a “historic deal” with Israel. In late May and early June Egypt said it supported renewed Israeli-Palestinian talks with Sisi as mediator. Meanwhile France has been pushing its own initiative, which Israel has rejected. The Palestinian ambassador to Cairo said Egypt’s involvement does not “contradict” the French plan.
Egypt Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry’s very public visit with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday was the culmination of Egyptian efforts to return relations to where they had been before the Arab Spring. As Herb Keinon noted in The Jerusalem Post, it was the first visit since 2007 by an Egyptian foreign minister and showed Sisi’s attempts to become a central player in diplomacy in Jerusalem. Shoukry spent time with Netanyahu at his office and then later at his home. There is no doubt this is an important step for Israel and Egypt, but to what end? Coming on the heels of the reconciliation with Turkey and Netanyahu’s trip to Africa, one gets the impression Israel has emerged from its diplomatic slumber of the past six years. This isn’t coincidental. Turkey has also reconciled with Egypt. That illustrates not just a return to pre-Arab Spring normalcy, but a realization that the terrorist-chaos in Iraq and Syria is the real problem. Shoukry said the extremism is an “existential threat to peoples of the region.”
Cairo has traditionally been one of the main centers of culture and influence in the region, alongside Damascus and Baghdad. The wars in Syria and Iraq have virtually destroyed Baghdad and Damascus’ influence, which leaves Egypt in an excellent position. Egypt has also largely stayed out of the sectarian Sunni-Shi’ite conflicts, unlike Saudi Arabia and Iran whose regimes are ruled by clerics. This puts Egypt in a special position, and its connection to Israel is important. The problem is that there is more than an impasse in the Israeli-Palestinian peace issue. With Hamas in power in Gaza, and a lack of a clear solution to the Palestinian yearning for a full-fledged state, only incremental peace issues can move forward, such as improving the Palestinian economy or freedom of movement. A greater Egyptian role in the PA-controlled areas and an emphasis on stability will be good for PA President Mahmoud Abbas, who is now in his 80s. The return of Egypt to its role with Israel also shows the irrelevance of the Western powers and the need for greater regional diplomacy.
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