Egypt’s role in Gaza

Egypt’s role in mediating between Israel and the Palestinians may point to the existence of an opportunity for further advancement in the ties between Egypt and Israel.

FISHING BOATS on the coast of Gaza. (photo credit: REUTERS)
FISHING BOATS on the coast of Gaza.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The recent violent escalation in Gaza, which led to the resignation of defense minister Avigdor Liberman and to a public uproar against the government’s handling of Hamas, has once more emphasized Egypt’s deep involvement in attempts to mediate and resolve conflicts between Israel and its Palestinian neighbors in the West Bank and Gaza.
Egypt’s active role is not limited to compliance with the disputants’ needs, but is an important component in its proactive policy and its self-perception as a necessary mediator and negotiator that promotes regional stability.
The consequences of the “Arab Spring” have yet to end. Each state that experienced these winds of change withstands the emerging regional and international reality differently, based on the way it defines its current position. Egypt under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and in the post-Morsi era, has redefined its aims and mode of action. The newly created Egyptian national security outlook prioritized two main objectives: to restore both domestic and regional security and to strengthen the Egyptian economy.
Regarding the security objective, as soon as Egypt defined “terrorism” (both domestic and international) as its biggest threat, it made sure to label the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization and carried out severe measures against its members. Furthermore, the Egyptian authorities have occasionally accused Hamas of carrying out terrorist attacks in cooperation with the Muslim Brotherhood and intermittently with Islamic State. No wonder that, every now and then, news of military cooperation between Egypt and Israel battling ISIS in the Sinai Peninsula appears in the media.
In addition to this, the Iranian policy in the Middle East is perceived by Egypt as a threat (and so by Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel and the United Arab Emirates). Both Turkey and Qatar are considered Egypt’s consistent and uncompromising rivals, due to their support for the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and based on their membership in the Middle Eastern axis opposing Egypt. A new reality that we have never seen before has evolved, in which the regional interests of Israel and Egypt, as well as those of other Arab states, have intertwined.
The long-standing Egyptian policy that strives to resolve the Palestinian issue relies, even to this day, on its ability to engage in what is happening in the Gaza Strip. Egypt wishes to promote steps of reconciliation between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, and to serve as a mediator between the Palestinians as well as between the Palestinians and Israelis. All actors in this equation view Egypt as a trustworthy and influential actor. In this way, Egypt acts as the most significant mediator that negotiates understandings between Israel and Hamas, and that supports Israeli-Palestinian dialogue. Egypt is expected to continue playing such a role in the future as well.
The meeting between Israel’s and Egypt’s leaders that took place during the 2018 UN General Assembly was not the first meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Sisi this past year. Among the issues discussed by the two leaders were the situation in Gaza, the Palestinian issue, security matters, regional developments and bilateral issues. The meeting reflected rather accurately the cooperative relations between the two countries over the past four years.
The second objective put forward by the Egyptian leadership has been to stabilize the economy. A strong sense of security and a steady economy may turn Egypt into a source for regional stability. This leads Egypt to be increasingly interested in promoting economic and trade cooperation with Israel. Egypt holds an important strategic location, on the maritime route from the Indian Ocean through the Bab al-Mandeb strait, toward the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean Sea. Therefore, the interest in Egypt’s stabilization is not limited to regional actors alone, but is also a vital interest of the United States, the European Union, Russia, India and China. This generates international interest in
supporting Israeli-Egyptian cooperation as a keystone for enhancing regional stability.
Broader cooperation between Israel and Egypt in the security and political spheres may stimulate their economic relations and therefore work for the benefit of both countries. Nevertheless, there is still a significant gap between the high level of strategic cooperation between Israel and Egypt, and their much lower level of civil cooperation. The number of Israelis touring Egypt is stable but rather low. Trade between the countries is taking place but to a limited extent, and the same is true regarding the field of agriculture, where there is far greater potential for cooperation than what is taking place today (at least in comparison to cooperation in the 1990s). In addition, there is potential for Egypt to utilize technologies such as solar energy and water desalination, which are widely known as areas of Israeli expertise, both as a manufacturer and as an implementer.
The field of energy, and in particular the production and marketing of natural gas, play a central role in Israeli-Egyptian economic and trade cooperation. Moreover, both countries can cooperate in traditional industrial fields, in unique qualified industrial zones (QIZ, a three-way agreement that allows the export of free-trade Egyptian goods to the US, on the condition they hold a certain percent of Israeli components), in agriculture, tourism and more. Such cooperation can promote both Israel’s and Egypt’s economies, and have a positive economic impact on the broader region.
The announcement made by the Israeli company Delek Drilling that it will purchase (together with the Noble Energy and East Gas companies) the Egyptian EMG company is a step toward achieving these goals. The natural gas pipeline owned by EMG connects Israel and Egypt, and will deliver natural gas from the Tamar and Leviathan reservoirs to Egypt. This is considered to be a milestone in transforming Egypt into a regional energy hub as a major importer and as an exporter, based on its liquefying gas facilities.
According to Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, the rehabilitation of the Israeli-Egyptian natural gas pipeline, along with the construction of a Jordanian-Israeli pipeline, creates a regional foundation between the “peace countries.” It is rare to have a joint infrastructure project with geopolitical significance take shape between Israel and its neighbors.
The positive nature of Israel-Egypt ties in recent years, evolving regional developments in the Middle East, Egypt’s role in mediating between Israel and the Palestinians, and the steps taken by Egypt to thaw the “cold” peace with Israel may all point to the existence of an opportunity for further advancement in ties between two strategic partners in the region – Egypt and Israel.
The writer, a task-team member at Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, served as ambassador to Egypt between the years 2014 and 2016. This article is based on a research paper on Israel-Egypt relations, written as part of Mitvim Institute’s project on the unfulfilled potential of Israel’s relations with Arab countries.