The Israeli Prime Minister’s Invitation to Egypt: How Egyptian Strategy Intersects Israel’s
By Dr. Moshe Albo | September, 2021
|Photo: U.S. Secretary of Defense | CC BY 2.0|
For the first time during President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s tenure Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has been invited for an official visit to Egypt. The invite of Prime Minister Naftali Bennet was a public gesture that underscored progress in strategic connections and cooperation between the countries facing challenges and sensitive issues in the security-diplomatic realm.
At the same time, the invite does not convey Egyptian readiness to take normalization forward or deepen bilateral relations on additional planes of economic, civil and cultural cooperation. The Egyptian move is defined and designed to strengthen Cairo’s ‘equity’ and leverage its value as an asset in Jerusalem and Washington, to forward interests at the heart of Egyptian national security.
The public invitation of an Israeli prime minister stems first and foremost from President el-Sisi’s confidence that the upcoming visit can be framed in Egypt’s anti-Israeli domestic arena as a legitimate effort to promoting a long-term settlement in the Gaza Strip, and hinging a diplomatic process on Cairo’s lead.
At the same time, the timing of the invitation was not coincidental, and was tied to the upcoming visit of the Israeli prime minister at the White House, and growing apprehensions in Cairo of American policies that clash with Egypt’s domestic policies arising in response to fierce criticism among elements within the American government of ongoing human rights violations against activists and civic organizations, and the deepening strategic relations of Egypt with Russia. Such criticism is liable to crystallize into a substantial blow to bilateral relations between the countries, curtailment of military foreign aid, even a perilous scenario of Washington imposing sanctions against the regime, similar to the Turkish case. In this framework, Cairo seeks to anchor American commitment by underscoring Egypt’s centrality to regional stability and moving the Palestinian-Israeli diplomatic process forward - by emphasizing Cairo’s strategic tie with Israel.
Parallel to growing apprehensions regarding American policy, Egypt is grappling with a series of complex challenges that could undermine its stability. Fortifying its regional status and bolstering its ‘equity’ within the international arena can assist Cairo leverage and position the players in the regional and international arena to support and forward Egypt’s agenda within the range of its vital strategic issues.
The Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Crisis: At the Epicenter of Egyptian Foreign Policy
In recent months, representatives of the regime and senior media figures have openly accused Israel of supporting Ethiopia, whether in technological or military aid, said to be designed to weaken Egypt. Sweeping denial from the embassy in Cairo that Israel has no interest in a crisis between the two countries has been categorically rejected by commentators, members of the media and the Egyptian public that maintain a conspiratorial agenda that corresponds to widespread public hostility towards Israel. Officials in the political establishment have expressed open support of the campaign against Israel in the Egyptian press on the ‘Renaissance Dam affair’.
In concrete terms, the Nile is perceived symbolically and in practice as Egypt’s lifeline. The unilateral decision of the Ethiopian government to fill the Renaissance Dam reservoir without any consideration of the Egyptian demand to dam the waters gradually over a lengthy period has exposed Egyptian policy as untenable…literally ‘unable to hold water’ and precipitated an unprecedented internal crisis.
The failure of Egyptian diplomacy - whether through direct negotiations or appeals demanding the Security Council coerce the Ethiopians to cease the reservoir filling process - demonstrates how limited the tools at Cairo’s disposal are to influence the Ethiopian move. The crisis amplifies the threat to the Egyptian water economy and the stability of the regime, and places Cairo before nothing short of an existential crisis.
The dam crisis constitutes a core issue in Egyptian foreign policy, and is intertwined in every move made by the Egyptian regime in one way or another within the regional and international arenas. In this context - in light of the dramatic impact of the issue on Egypt’s national security - Cairo is demanding that Jerusalem support the Egyptian position, and exploit Jerusalem’s ties with Ethiopia to promote a return to the negotiation table.
In light of the low expectation for success and the ramifications of failure on relations between the countries - Israel needs to exercise caution and not place itself in the position of a broker between Ethiopia and Egypt. At the same time, Jerusalem needs to support the Egyptian position in Washington and in the international arena, and to offer concrete assistance in all aspects of desalinization and irrigation technologies that can ameliorate pressures on Egypt’s water reserves wrought by the dam.
The Security Crisis in Sinai - Another Round?
Military cooperation in combating terrorism constitutes the cornerstone of security relationships between Israel and Egypt, and a central element in the shared interest of both countries to protect the international border, and secure the operations of the Multinational Force Observers (MFO) in Sinai and prevent consolidation of terror organizations’ base in Sinai
The American withdrawal from Afghanistan parallel to escalating operations of Jihadist organizations in Iraq and Syria raise apprehensions of a renewed awakening of terrorist activity in the Sinai Peninsula, after a relatively long lull thanks to the effectiveness of Egyptian army operations. Realization of this dangerous scenario of rehabilitation of a Sinai terrorist infrastructure through the flow of money, weaponry and terror operatives hinges on a host of internal and external variables. In concrete terms, the ‘Sinai province of ISIL’ has succeeded in carrying out a series of successful bombings and sniper attacks against the Egyptian army in the past month, including to its credit even killing a senior officer (head of Egypt’s 12th Infantry Regiment). The recent terrorist attacks underscore the need to continue the investment and coordination between Israeli and Egyptian security entities and military units to meet ongoing threats to the stability of security in Sinai.
The Israeli decision to lower the threat level of terrorism along the southern coast of Sinai from Level 1 (“very high concrete threat”) to Level 3 ("basic concrete threat”), and progress in talks for opening direct flights between Tel Aviv and Sharm-el Sheikh to significantly expand Israeli tourism to Sinai, reflect the assessment of Israeli security bodies regarding the effectiveness of Egyptian efforts to secure Southern Sinai. From the Egyptian perspective, the move is perceived as an Israeli gesture to establish Southern Sinai as a safe destination for the world tourism market, that can contribute to returning tourists to the beaches and hotels and bringing in needed foreign currency for the Egyptian economy which is still suffering from the ramifications of the Covid crisis. However, parallel to this, in the event of renewed terror waves in Northern Sinai, Israel will be forced to reassess its National Security Council’s travel advisory warning status for Southern Sinai - despite the diplomatic cost such a step is liable to exact in relations between the two countries.
From a diplomatic standpoint, the invitation of an Israeli prime minister to Egypt is significant and underscores the closeness and sense of trust existing between the senior diplomatic-security echelon and the range of shared concerns on the agenda between the two countries. At the same time, this step defines and serves Egyptian interests tied to the core of it national security that do not signify any warming of relations or progress on normalization with Israel. Public opinion in Egypt has not changed, and remains conspiratorial and anti-Israel in its essence.
As a corollary of this, moving the Israeli-Palestinian process forward constitutes an Egyptian interest reflecting an authentic and historical commitment - despite understanding in Cairo that the prospects of success are low at this point. This move fortifies the Two-State approach and ‘shelves’ in practice the Trump peace plan and notions of annexation, and parallel to this - it establishes Egypt’s regional status and role as the regional power broker (that is, ‘a force to be contended with’), and positioning Egypt as an asset from the perspective of the United States and Europe. Promotion of the diplomatic process by Cairo serves an Egyptian-Arab agenda that does not necessarily correspond with Israeli policy on the issue.
A long-term settlement in the Gaza Strip constitutes a shared Israel-Egyptian interest, as well as a desire to weaken Hamas and its status in the Palestinian arena. In this context the potential is growing for tightening collaboration on security by foiling the transfer of weaponry from Sinai to the Gaza Strip, and putting a check on channels for boosting Jihadist forces that are liable to have ramifications for the security situation in Sinai.
In summary, the official and public visit had a strategic importance in and of itself and constituted an opportunity to take forward shared issues and interests - first and foremost a long-term settlement in the Gaza Strip, and further tightening security collaboration.
Authored by Dr. Moshe Albo, a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.
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