Israel and Egypt: Closer than expected

Something seems to be changing in usual don't ask/don't tell nature of Egyptian-Israeli partnership.

mubarak shakes hands with Barak (photo credit: )
mubarak shakes hands with Barak
(photo credit: )
Israelis like to call it the "cold peace." Egyptians would rather not call it anything at all because that would be like admitting there's actually something there to name. For years the exact extent of political and economic cooperation between the two neighbors has been a subject of hot-button speculation and the occasional press campaign in Cairo. The government of President Hosni Mubarak, whose predecessor Anwar Sadat signed the 1978 Camp David Accords, generally tries to keep the specifics of the two countries' relationship low-key, only admitting it when things become too obvious to deny. "An Israeli is not the type of person that you want all your neighbors to know you're dating," chuckled Menachem Klein, a former Israeli negotiator and Bar-Ilan University political science professor. Several years ago, a former Egyptian agriculture minister fended off a prolonged opposition media campaign calling him a secret normalizer for his ministry's working relationship with its Israeli counterpart. Popular reaction was straight out of the movie Casablanca: people were shocked to discover something that most regional observers already saw as patently obvious. More recently, the local press has accused the government of selling natural gas to Israel for sweetheart prices. EGYPTIANS IN general do know that there are extensive economic and agricultural ties with Israel, but prefer not to think too hard about it. (A personal example: when I first moved to Jerusalem in February 2008 as a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, my Egyptian relatives were genuinely curious as to what route I used to visit Cairo. They honestly had no idea that there are multiple EgyptAir and El Al flights every week between Cairo and Tel Aviv.) But now, something seems to be changing in the usual don't ask/don't tell nature of the Egyptian-Israeli partnership. It's becoming harder for Cairo to hide the fact that its foreign policy interests are more in line with Tel Aviv than ever. The main source of common ground is a mutual desire to contain Iran's regional and nuclear ambitions. Both governments have arrived at this place via different routes. Israel fears an Iranian nuclear capability will challenge its own (nominally secret) nuclear arsenal and open the door to a devastating attack on the Jewish state. Egypt doesn't fear Iran militarily, but dreads the gradual expansion of revolutionary Shi'ite ideology into the Sunni sphere. Egypt's own bilateral relations with Teheran are fraught with tension -partially stemming from Iran's insistence on glorifying Sadat's assassins. "The way Iran acts has actually pulled [Egypt and Israel] closer together," said Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born Israeli political analyst. This common interest has already produced some interesting public displays of cooperation. Earlier this summer, an Israeli submarine passed through the Suez Canal from the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea, touching off a weeklong media firestorm in Egypt. Israeli warships have traversed the canal for years, but this was the first submarine passage. The hype surrounding the event was only intensified by the fact that no one seems to know for sure the exact capabilities of the German-made Dolphin class sub. Egyptian officials were generally tight-lipped, saying that the two countries have a peace treaty and the canal is open for all nations. But Israeli media openly declared the passage a coordinated message aimed directly at Teheran. "They want Iran to realize that nothing is impossible," Javedanfar said. Does that include a scenario where Egypt actively assists an Israeli preemptive strike on Iran? Nobody is sure and Javedanfar says that is exactly how both governments want it. THE SUBMARINE passage was far more than a symbolic show of cooperation. Usage of the Suez Canal would enable the Israeli navy to quickly get in position for a naval strike or blockade against Iranian ports. Without the canal, Israeli ships would have to make a weeks-long voyage around Africa in order to attack Iranian shores. Emad Gad, an expert on Israeli policy with Cairo-based Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, warns not to read too much into the submarine incident. "There may be some Egyptian cooperation," with Israel, he says. "But it hasn't reached the level of joint planning." Gad believes Egypt's permitting the submarine to use the canal, "was more for the Americans than for the Israelis". The two countries still have just as many points of conflict as they do areas of common interest. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains a sore spot, with each government seemingly pulling in opposite directions. Egypt has worked (unsuccessfully) for years to produce a reconciliation and unity government between Hamas and Fatah - something that Israel staunchly opposes. Earlier this month, President Mubarak lobbied US President Barack Obama to push Israel for an immediate jump to final-status negotiations with the Palestinians. That would essentially be a direct repudiation of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's plan to delay final status talks for years while building up the economy and infrastructure of the occupied West Bank. The writer is the news editor for the English-language edition of Al Masry Al Youm newspaper. This article originally appeared in and is reprinted with permission.