CAIRO – The vast six-lane boulevard from Cairo International Airport into the city center is lined with buildings and offices connected to Egypt’s powerful military. Hotels cater to air force officers, and buildings commemorate, with glorious murals, the country’s fighting history. One shows Egyptian soldiers crossing the Suez Canal in 1973 to strike at Israeli forces in Sinai.
Many Egyptians see the 1973 war as a victory. From that war came the peace treaty signed in Washington in 1979 between president Anwar Sadat and prime minister Menachem Begin. Insiders say that Israel and Egypt are experiencing the closest cooperation in decades, based on shared interests.
On the surface there is nothing about the Egyptian-Israeli cold peace that appears warm. Israel was not represented at the Cairo International Book Fair that wrapped up on Friday. Official meetings with Israelis are controversial – a parliamentarian named Tawfik Okasha was heavily reprimanded for sitting down with the Israeli ambassador last year.
Israel reopened its embassy, albeit in smaller quarters, in September 2015, four years after an angry mob stormed it during the chaos of the Arab Spring. “We’re working together for the sake of stability and prosperity in the Middle East. Egypt will always be the largest and most important state in our region,” then-Foreign Ministry director-general Dore Gold said. However, reports noted that the embassy building itself would not be re-opened and the ambassador’s residence would be used until a suitable location could be found.
This shows the relationship with Israel is multi-layered. Large portions of the population are hostile to Israel, fed by populist media. That may have changed slightly for the better in recent years. “There is still a lot of hearsay and conspiracy theories going on,” said Ayman el-Khatib, a former teacher.
There is a bifurcation between the political and diplomatic level – which officially demands that Israel make peace with the Palestinians and sees the Palestinian issue as a core of the region’s problems – and the strategic and military sector, which sees potential in cooperation with Israel.
Egypt and Israel quietly share strategic interests in the region. Egypt’s leadership sees the result of the Arab Spring as incredible instability and rising Islamist extremism. In discussions with people knowledgeable of the current situation, it was stressed that Cairo views the conflict today in the region as one between political Islam, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates, and more traditionally “secular” regimes.
It also fears the rising influence of Iran as Iranian proxies in Yemen, Lebanon and Iraq creep closer to Cairo’s eastern flank. In this set-up Israel is a key ally. Egypt treads a fine line in its relations with Saudi Arabia and Syria. It needs financial support from the Gulf, but wants to retain its traditional position as a military and cultural powerhouse in the region and see Islamist extremism defeated.
The Egyptian-Israeli relationship is also a foundation of US policy in the region. With the US providing more than $80 billion in funding for Egypt since the 1978 Camp David Accords, and similar military support for Israel, the two countries have much in common. “Bilateral relations are the best in recent history” and “the relationship with Israel has never been better,” said insiders.
On December 22, Egypt withdrew a draft UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements, after what reports described as “frantic” lobbying by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s spokesman told reporters that they would allow the incoming US administration of Donald Trump to address the issue.
In an embarrassment for Cairo, the Security Council then passed a resolution a day later that was submitted by New Zealand, Venezuela, Senegal and Malaysia. Egypt ended up supporting a resolution it had withdrawn.
Today Egypt wants Washington to declare the Muslim Brotherhood, which was ejected from power in 2013, a terrorist organization and it sees an interest in fighting terrorism alongside Israel. Hamas’s brand of political Islam is viewed as similar to that of the Brotherhood. Last week Egypt destroyed six tunnels linking the Gaza Strip and Sinai.
The new US administration provides Egypt opportunities and potential pitfalls relating to the Israeli issue. On the one hand there is a feeling that “the US always takes advice from Israel,” according to one knowledgeable source who asked to remain anonymous. “But Israel is not an Arab state – Washington should listen to our advice.” Some influential Egyptians believe that the US State Department is influenced by Israeli interests. Only a small minority openly speaks of more open public relations with Israel.
Egyptian diplomats and politicians fear that relocating the US Embassy to Jerusalem could inflame the region. Comments by Trump prior to being sworn in about moving the embassy caused much concern in Cairo, and they stress that it must not happen.
In 1978, Sadat emphasized the need to provide Palestinians with rights. Egypt still argues that Israel must make peace with the Palestinian Authority and create what one source said is a “win-win solution for the Palestinian and Israel.” This should be modeled on the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which calls for Israel to withdraw from the West Bank in return for recognition by the Arab states, locals said.
They are worried about the Israeli public’s continued drift to the Right, which makes any solution impossible. They paid close attention to the passage of the “settlement regulation law” last week and think it will lead to an attempt to annex the West Bank.
According to Dr. Eric R. Mandel, founder and director of the Middle East Political and Information Network, who recently led a trip to Egypt organized by Keshet Insight Seminars, there is reason to be optimistic. “They should broaden and strengthen their relations with Israel, not as a favor to Israel, but to advance Egyptian interests, including strengthening the US relationship.”
Mandel sees much to gain for Egypt in cooperation on developing fresh water resources and desalination that can benefit the country’s growing population. He argues that the relationship should not be held hostage by the Palestinian issue. “They are handicapped by generations of incitement against Israel,” he pointed out. “If they can somehow think out of the box, they could profoundly improve their economic situation and relationship with the United States.”