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The Egypt-Israel Common Strategic Agenda

By Professor Efraim Inbar, President of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.

Egyptian and Israeli interests converge in Gaza, Sinai, Syria, and Libya, and regarding Turkey and other regional matters.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi met Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. Bennett’s predecessor, Benyamin Netanyahu, was the last Israeli prime minister to make an official visit to Egypt, in 2011. The state visit, which involves a formal ceremony at the airport and press coverage, indicates that the Egyptian government is ready to work publicly with Israel’s new government.

Egypt broke the Arab taboo on relations with Israel when it signed a peace treaty in March 1979. Nevertheless, Egypt has been reluctant to implement “normalization” clauses in the peace treaty, keeping to a “cold peace” with Israel. Cairo has discouraged its citizens from interactions with Israelis. Until recently, when the government tone somewhat softened, it hardly changed the curriculum in the Egyptian education system regarding Israel. Government-controlled media has remained hostile and occasionally antisemitic. There has been some cooperation between the two countries in agriculture and energy, and for a while, Israeli tourists were welcome in Egypt. But the narrow bilateral ties primarily were conducted via military channels.

The Egyptian posture toward Israel seemed to signal the limits on relations with Israel for an Arab state. To a great extent, Jordan emulated the Egyptian positions. (Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994). In contrast, the 2020 Abraham Accords constituted a dramatic change in approach, encouraging multi-faceted people-to-people interactions, particularly between the UAE and Israel.

The fanfare around the Abraham Accords, as well as the fact that Israel has a new Prime Minister, probably made it easier for Cairo to invite Bennett. So did the cumulative impact of enhanced covert security cooperation in recent years between Egypt and Israel. The two countries share a burgeoning common strategic agenda.

The 1979 peace treaty primarily was the result of Sadat’s realization that Egypt needed a drastic change in its foreign policy, moving to a pro-American orientation instead of relying on the Soviet Union; coupled with weariness of the conflict with Israel. Egypt still is looking toward Washington and it needs Israel more than ever to deflect American and European criticism about human rights violations. Moreover, US assistance to Egypt of $1.3 billion a year has played an important role in Egypt’s economic and military development, and this is linked to American assistance to Israel. While Egypt has tried to diversify its arms suppliers, Jerusalem has a clear interest in continuous American influence in Cairo.

Undoubtedly, Cairo and Jerusalem think alike about the Afghanistan debacle and the regional implications of American retreat from the Middle East, primarily the reinvigoration of Moslem extremists around the world.

At the regional level, Jerusalem and Cairo share a concern about Iran’s aggressive policies, although Israel’s threat perception is greater. Yet, they are fully in sync about Turkey’s promotion of Islamic extremism (with Qatar) and its neo-Ottoman aspirations. Egypt and Israel also are in alliance against growing Turkish assertiveness in the eastern Mediterranean. Egypt is a key member of the strategic alignment embodied in the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), alongside Greece, Cyprus, nd Israel – an alignment which is designed inter alia to contain Turkish quest for hegemony in the region.

Israel lends substantial support to Egypt in the latter’s efforts to suppress an Islamic insurgency in Sinai. Gaza is sandwiched between Egypt and Israel and ruled by Hamas, an offshoot of the Moslem Brotherhood, the archenemy of the Egyptian regime. Hamas has assisted the Islamists in Sinai. While not averse to bleeding the Jewish state a bit, Egypt is interested in lowering the flames of Israel-Hamas confrontation and has acquired an important role in the mediation between the two sides. This diplomatic role gains Egypt points in Jerusalem and Washington, and gives it leverage over Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza.

Egyptian and Israeli interests also converge in Libya. Both countries side with Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the commander of the Tobruk-based Libyan National Army, while Turkey intervened in 2020 in the civil war to prevent the fall of the Government of National Accord in Tripoli that includes Islamist elements. Israel’s new partner, the UAE, also has assisted Haftar.

Even in Syria, Israel and Egypt seem to have the same preferences. Egypt opposed the efforts of Sunni rebel groups to depose Bashar al-Assad, while also Israel has been careful not to destabilize Assad’s regime – to preserve Israel’s freedom of action against Iranian targets in Syria in line with the quid quo pro reached between Israel and Russia after the in September 2015 Russian military intervention.

Egyptians often call their country umm ad-dunya, the mother of the world, expressing self-importance. However, ever since the heyday of Nasser, Egypt’s regional weight has declined. Cairo’s focus is primarily domestic, like most Arab countries. Nevertheless, Egypt is the most populous and important Arab state with the strongest military among Israel’s neighbors. Therefore, Egypt is an important strategic partner for Israel that rates high priority on Israel’s foreign policy agenda.

JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.