After twenty years of war and four decades of cold peace, the relationship between Egypt and Israel is finally taking the form of a normal relationship between two normal neighbor states. In the past two years, in particular, the Egyptian-Israeli relationship started to take a healthier shape where points of bilateral cooperation outweighed the many obstacles raised by regional disagreements. However, greater efforts are needed to sustain this emerging bond and avoid rolling back to coldness under the pressure of regional conflicts, wherein the two countries are directly or indirectly involved.
Last week, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi sent a letter to the new Israeli President, Isaac Herzog, to congratulate him on winning the elections. In his letter, President El-Sisi expressed hope that the new political shifts in Israel “will contribute to further strengthening the culture of peace,” especially in regards to achieving a just and lasting solution to the Palestinian cause. “I very much look forward to your contribution to this effect so that our region can eventually enjoy the peace that we all aspire to;” President El-Sisi wrote.
In late June, President El-Sisi spoke on the phone with the new Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to congratulate him on finally succeeding in building up the new coalition government in Israel. The two leaders discussed several issues of common interest, including the situation in Gaza and the Egypt-brokered ceasefire between Hamas and Israel. A few weeks before, the Egyptian Foreign Minister spoke on phone with his Israeli counterpart, Yair Lapid, who also co-leads the new Israeli coalition government with Prime Minister Bennett. In mid-July, both foreign ministers met in person in Brussels, on the sidelines of the European Union Foreign Affairs Council meeting.
The relationship between Egypt and Israel has been constantly improving since President El-Sisi took office in mid-2014. This important transformation was mainly motivated by the historical political transformations that took place, inside Egypt, between the revolution against Mubarak in January 2011 and overthrowing the Muslim Brotherhood regime in June 2013. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring revolutions, it was inevitable for the two neighbor states to cooperate against common threats posed by non-state actors and terrorist organizations that spread all over the Middle East.
In 2014, Israel was one of the very few non-Arab countries, which understood why the Egyptian military had to respond to people’s call to remove the theocratic regime of the Muslim Brotherhood from power before they turn Egypt into a Sunni copy of Iran. While Hamas was leaking weapons and food to affiliate terrorists in Sinai, such as Beit al-Maqdes group, Israel cooperated with Egypt on amending the 1979 peace treaty to allow military equipment and personnel to enter Zone C in northern Sinai to fight against terrorists. By 2015, the news about security cooperation between Egypt and Israel, in North Sinai, were making news headlines. By the end of 2017, the security cooperation between Egypt and Israel successfully managed to control Hamas affiliated terrorists and end the presence of the Islamic State (ISIS) in that area.
History tells that the cooperation, which is motivated by deterring a common security threat, is usually temporary and short-lived. As soon as the security threat is removed, the cooperating parties tend to withdraw from cooperation and go back to their normal disagreements. However, this was not the case for the modern form of Egypt-Israel relations. Fortunately, in 2018, the gas discoveries in the eastern Mediterranean provided a common project for the two countries to cooperate on. Today, Egypt and Israel are partnering on several projects to extract and export gas and electricity to Europe. There is also a common desire to increase the trade balance between the two countries which currently stands at less than 15 million US dollars, according to World Bank data for the year 2019.
The election of a new government in Israel is a good opportunity to push forward the Egyptian-Israeli relations, especially in light of the positive attitude currently adopted by senior Egyptian and Israeli officials towards each other. For this to happen, the leaders need to focus on the opportunities that they can bilaterally benefiting from, especially in the economic sector, rather than focusing the majority of their cooperation efforts on fighting security threats and solving the endless geopolitical dilemmas of the Middle East.
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