Israel and Egypt: A Marriage of Convenience

The coup d’etat against the government of the Muslim Brotherhood in July 2013 that ended with Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi being elected president of Egypt a year later marked a clear shift in Egypt to a policy of rapprochement and cooperation, particularly on security matters, with Israel.

A far cry from the attitude of the Muslim Brotherhood — which supported Israel’s nemesis in Gaza, Hamas, and encouraged a hostile attitude from the Egyptian public towards Israel — the new government in Cairo sees the Jewish state as a strategic ally.

The points of convergence between the two parties stretch beyond their shared enmity to Hamas, the Gazan extension of the Muslim Brotherhood. The rise of Iran and its outreach throughout the region, as well as Jihadi terrorism in the Sinai Peninsula, are threats that vitally concern both Egypt and Israel. Stemming the rise of Iran and keeping Turkey’s regional ambitions in check are also key objectives shared by both Israel and Egypt.

Israel and Iran have been engaged in a covert and overt war (through Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah) in recent years over Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The Israelis would prefer to present this as an existential issue; it is, however, more of a strategic struggle for regional dominance. Netanyahu uses Holocaust metaphors to rally the nation behind his strategic objectives. Sometimes this works to deflect attention away from the Palestinian problem.

Keeping an Iranian-Shiite empire in check is an objective for Egypt as well. Indeed, Egypt sees its own participation in the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthis in Yemen as a way to check Iranian expansion in the region, particularly by securing the strategic Suez Canal, as well as reinstating its role as a regional power. Protecting the Suez Canal and securing the Strait of Bab el-Mandeb, located at the mouth of the Red Sea, from encroachment by Iran is in Egypt’s interest as much as it is a vital concern of Israel. It is suffice to remember that Israel’s 1967 preemptive war was triggered by President Gamal Abdul Nasser’s closing of the Straits of Tiran to the north of Bab el Mandeb.

Stemming Turkey’s drive to become a regional power broker also calls for greater Israeli-Egyptian cooperation. President Erdogan’s (of Turkey) popularity throughout the region has been to a great degree achieved at Israel’s expense. His frequent tirades against Israel, outspoken support for Hamas in Gaza, and his riding on the waves of anti-Israeli sentiment in the region, were the platform upon which Erdogan pretended to assume a hegemonic role in the politics of the Middle East.

El-Sisi’s Egypt fully concurs with Israel’s rejection of Turkey’s regional ambitions. Not only is the electoral base of President Erdogan’s party (The Justice and Development Party — AKP) overwhelmingly supportive of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Erdogan himself actively has, at the expense of Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi, challenged the legitimacy of el-Sisi’s rise to power.

Both Israel and Egypt have continuously challenged Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean. Both look (against Turkey’s will) to carve out an economic and strategic zone for their countries in what Turkey considers to be its backyard.   

Turkey became particularly riled up by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s visit to Cyprus at the end of April this year, where he held talks with President Nicos Anastasiades and met with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to discuss energy cooperation among the three eastern Mediterranean countries. Likewise, Israel’s gas interests in the eastern part of the Mediterranean, and its rapprochement with Greece before the rise of Syriza, were interpreted in Ankara as a dangerous and strategic competition; an encroachment into a highly sensitive area in Turkey’s strategic calculations.

Turkey’s ambition to replace Egypt in the role of championing the Palestinian cause and being the main peace broker with Israel threatens to undermine a major Egyptian asset in its relationship with the West, particularly with the American administration. An Egypt that has deviated from the principles of the Arab Spring — principles which President Obama supported almost from day one (Obama was, in fact, a crucial factor in precipitating President Mubarak’s downfall) — and is now flirting with Vladimir Putin’s Russia — with which it has even signed an arms deal — desperately needs the role of peace broker with Israel as a playing card in the US Congress.

Conspicuously, the agenda of the recent visit to Egypt by Dore Gold, the Director General of Israel’s foreign ministry and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s trusted advisor, a week after Egypt appointed its first ambassador to Israel since 2012, was presented by authorities in Cairo as focusing exclusively on the issue of Palestine as the epicentre of the Middle East situation. One can’t help but wonder whether the Palestinian question was indeed the exclusive item on the agenda for Mr. Gold’s visit; Egypt and Israel today have far more burning issues to discuss, such as security in the Sinai, Syria, Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the destabilizing policies of Hamas, as well as Netanyahu`s and Sisi’s troubled relations with President Obama and his regional policies.

For Cairo, Israel’s unique influence in Washington is of great importance. The Egyptian coup d’etat and the stifling of democratic rights in Egypt under el-Sisi’s government has increased Egypt’s alienation from the Obama administration and put the annual $1.3 billion of American military aid to Cairo in jeopardy. It has been Israeli lobbying to a considerable degree that helped maintain such a level of assistance in spite of the strong pressure against it coming from Washington’s corridors of power.

Does the Israel-Egypt alliance reflect a permanent shift in the strategic equations of the Middle East? It is difficult to say, if only because the entire region is in a state of flux. In the foreseeable future, however, and given the estrangement of key Arab actors in the Middle East due to American policies in the region, with particular regard to Iran, a discreet alliance of convenience on security matters has been developing between Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. It is difficult to assume that such an alliance — however important its strategic imperatives might be, and in spite of it being based on the relegation of the Palestinian problem to secondary position (for now) — would resist the pressure of an unresolved Palestinian problem for long.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.