Are there problems on the horizon for Egypt-US-Israel ties?

It is preferable that Israel tackle the issues behind the scenes and that it not be dragged into drastic actions – or reactions – that will damage the delicate relationship.

Protesters fill Egypt's Tahrir Square Cairo 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany)
Protesters fill Egypt's Tahrir Square Cairo 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany)
From Egypt’s signing of the peace treaty with Israel in 1979 to the recent mass demonstrations in Cairo, there has never been a question as to Egypt’s commitment to the agreement. In spite of difficult tests over the years, including Israel’s bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor in Baghdad in 1981; the invasion of Lebanon and the IDF’s continued presence there (1982-2000); two intifadas; and various operations in Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza, Egypt observed most of the articles in the military part of the treaty and helped navigate the Arab discourse on subjects related to Israel, especially the Israeli-Palestinian issue. The exception was Egypt’s position on the Israeli nuclear issue.
Egyptian public opinion polls conducted since the start of the recent demonstrations have addressed the question of its continued commitment to the peace treaty. In a telephone poll conducted among 615 respondents for the International Peace Institute (IPI) in New York, 46 percent stated they would be “much more likely” to vote for a party that supports honoring the treaty with Israel, the Arab Peace Initiative, and the two-state solution. Another 17% said they would be “somewhat more likely” to prefer such a party. That is, 63% expressed a willingness to support Egypt’s continued commitment to the treaty.
Another poll conducted for the Pew Research Center in March-April 2011 among 1,000 respondents presented more disturbing results. Fifty-four percent of those polled said Egypt should cancel the agreement, while 36% replied that it should maintain it. Support for maintaining the treaty was greater among those with higher incomes and levels of education. (Since the IPI poll was conducted by phone, the positive result is presumably misleading because of the greater weight given to those who own a telephone).
These two polls have pointed to former foreign minister and Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa as the leading candidate in the Egyptian presidential elections. Moussa’s views on relations with Israel are important, as are the opinions of the current foreign minister, Nabil el-Araby, who was also elected as the new secretary general of the Arab League on Monday. In a comprehensive interview with Der Spiegel on March 16, Moussa, responding to a question about his critical position toward Israel, stated: “Egypt fully supports the joint Arab position toward Israel. The Palestinians need their own, viable state, and Israel has to withdraw from the occupied territories. And as a very first step, the blockade of the Gaza Strip has to be lifted, immediately and in full.”
In response to a question by Lally Weymouth of The Washington Post as to whether, if he became president, he would keep the treaty, Moussa replied: “The treaty is a treaty. For us, the treaty has been signed and it is for peace, but it depends also on the other side. If you asked me what kind of relations between the Arab world and Israel I would like, I would say that the Arab position – of which Egypt is a party – rests on the Arab initiative of 2002.”
Araby, a seasoned diplomat, stated unequivocally (also in an interview with Weymouth): “Egypt is going to comply with every agreement and abide by every treaty it has entered into. That is the goal of treaties... ” The responses from Araby, who worked as a lawyer during most of his years in the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, and the statements by Moussa show that in spite of the results of the Pew poll, a sweeping decision to cancel the peace treaty is not expected. It is clear to both Egypt and to its future leaders that this would cause severe damage to Egypt and its economy. However, on at least two subjects, deterioration is likely if Moussa and Araby continue to play a central role in Egypt’s foreign policy after September. These subjects are the Palestinian and the nuclear issues.
IT COMES as no surprise that Moussa, who until recently was the Arab League secretary-general, speaks about the Arab initiative of 2002. For his part, Araby has made no secret of the fact that Egypt wholeheartedly supports a UN General Assembly decision to recognize a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders (with territorial exchanges, according to the Clinton parameters of December 2000), and that Egypt is pressuring Europe to support such a decision.
The convergence this September of elections in Egypt and the General Assembly discussion is likely to give rise to fiery statements from Egyptian presidential candidates.
Israel has an interest in preserving the treaty, and therefore should refrain from hasty responses to these comments.
These events may also become entangled in the issue of American aid to Egypt, and in this discussion, too, Israel and its friends in Congress are liable to deliver hasty responses. The US administration’s desire to aid Egypt was clear at the start of the uprising in Cairo. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raised the issue in her meeting with the Republican speaker of the House on February 14, and four days later, Clinton announced aid totaling $150 million to address the economic problems that resulted from the Egyptian demonstrations.
In talks with President Barack Obama, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will likely raise Israel’s concern over changes in the Egyptian position, but it is important that his comments not send any signals on the subject of American aid to Egypt. Against the backdrop of expected cuts in the overall American aid budget, it is critical that Israel not involve itself in this discussion.
Indeed, Israel’s hasty decision in the wake of the agreement between Fatah and Hamas to stop the transfer of tax money collected for the PA provides an example of potential negative fallout. The European Union responded immediately with a decision to transfer monies to the PA, which damaged Israel’s position.
Relations between Egypt and Hamas will presumably thaw, even if the Muslim Brotherhood doesn’t play a role in the Egyptian government after September.
If the hopes expressed by The Washington Post editorial – that Egypt will moderate Hamas positions – are realized, tensions in the US-Israeli-Egyptian triangle are likely to arise over disagreements regarding the extent to which Hamas has actually done so. Netanyahu should anchor this issue in the three Quartet conditions – recognition of Israel, acceptance of agreements between Israel and the PLO, and renunciation of terrorism – and avoid reactions that will damage relations with Egypt.
This suggestion also applies to the Egyptian attempt to convene a 2012 conference on a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East, as was decided in the May 2010 NPT Review Conference. It was Moussa who turned the struggle against Israeli nuclearization into the flagship of Egyptian diplomacy.
In the interview with Weymouth, Moussa says that “the nuclear issue in the Middle East means Israel and then Iran.”
Nabil Fahmy, who served as Egypt’s ambassador to the US between 1999 and 2008, reiterated his call to establish a nuclear-free zone that will include Iran and Israel, with practical steps by Israel in this direction and a clear timetable. The US indeed supported the decision last year, but it is doubtful that Obama, whose high-ranking officials repudiated the decision even then, will lend a hand at the height of the American presidential campaign and against the background of developments in the Middle East, to a conference that will only add fuel to the regional fire.
Thus it is preferable that Israel also tackle this issue behind the scenes, and not be dragged into drastic actions that will damage the delicate Israeli-Egyptian- US triangle.
The writer is director of the Institute for National Security Studies. He served as ambassador to Jordan and the European Union.