Creating new perspectives since 2009

Egypt-Israeli relations continue to cool

January 25, 2014 at 10:43 am

The success of the Egyptian revolution has cast a shadow of uncertainty over future relations between Israel and Egypt.  Even though it is too early to predict the course of events, there have been indications that relations between the two will be much cooler than under Hosni Mubarak.

The appointment of Nabil al-Arabi as Egypt’s new foreign minister is a case in point. Al-Arabi’s predecessor, Ahmed Abouelgheit, was all too willing to cooperate with Israel; during his term in office, Egypt faithfully collaborated in imposing the siege on Gaza, while in late 2009 it began building a steel wall designed to cut off Gaza’s only lifeline, the smuggling tunnels beneath the Egyptian border.  Al-Arabi, on the other hand, is not only an outspoken opponent of the Israeli siege of Gaza which depends on Egyptian cooperation, he was also a critic of the Camp David peace treaty despite being part of the team that negotiated it.

Shortly after the revolution began there was a great deal of hysteria in the Israeli press about what it would mean for Israel.  Having lost all legitimacy in his own country, Israel was the only place where Mubarak was still popular.  In an Israeli opinion poll, 65% of respondents said that Mubarak’s removal would be dangerous for Israel.  Much of the hysteria was focused on the possibility of a Muslim Brotherhood takeover of Egypt.  This was treated by the Israeli press as almost inevitable, even though there was never any serious prospect of it happening.  Although the Muslim Brotherhood took part in the protests which toppled Mubarak, it was not the main driving force behind them.  What Israel really feared was the coming to power of a democratic government that would represent the interests of the Egyptian people.

The Israeli strategy for dealing with the Arab world has always been to support and rely on autocratic regimes willing to put Israel’s interests before those of their own countries.  In the case of Mubarak’s Egypt, this subservience could firstly be seen through its cooperation with Israel in its siege of Gaza which violated international law and severely damaged Egypt’s standing and reputation in the Arab and the wider world. Moreover, Egypt gained absolutely nothing from this policy. Another example was the sale of Egyptian gas to Israel for prices well below the global market rate.  Egypt supplied Israel with 40% of its natural gas imports at this heavily discounted price.  There was no clear reason why Egypt should do so and an Egyptian court ruled in 2008 that the government should stop selling gas to Israel at this price.  This ruling was ignored by the government, which later succeeded in getting the ban overturned.

There are now signs that both these policies, which are so detrimental to the interests of the Egyptian people, will change.  During the revolutionary unrest in Egypt, the pipeline supplying gas to Israel was blown up and the supply of gas was suspended.  Initially Israel received assurances that supplies would resume soon.  However it now looks likely that the suspension will be indefinite.  The cessation of gas exports to Israel was one of the key demands of Egyptian protesters during the revolution and the new government will likely want to distance itself from such an unpopular policy.  As for the siege of Gaza, the views of the newly appointed foreign minister, Nabil al-Arabi, are clear.  Last month he published an article in the Egyptian journal, Al-Shurouk, saying that Egypt was violating international law by participating in the siege of Gaza and that it was beneath its dignity to do so.

Al-Arabi was formerly a judge at the International Court of Justice and he sat on the panel which declared Israel’s apartheid wall illegal.  Israel tried unsuccessfully to remove him from his post.  His opposition to the Camp David treaty was primarily because it was detrimental to the interests of the Palestinians.  Given his views, his appointment has come as something of a surprise and has been greeted with delight in Gaza and dismay in Tel Aviv.  Egypt’s previous policy of supporting the siege of Gaza has created some deeply damaging and embarrassing incidents.  Aid convoys have been held up by the Egyptian authorities, with activists being beaten by police and pro-government thugs while aid was confiscated and left to rot.  All this is now likely to change.  It seems inevitable that the siege of Gaza will be at least partially eased.  However, it remains to be seen whether the Egyptian government will be able to fully lift it.

Even though the Higher Military Council which now governs Egypt has said that it is committed to the Camp David Treaty, there have been several other indicators of a cooling of Israeli-Egyptian relations in the aftermath of the revolution.  On Sunday, Egypt temporarily stopped issuing visas to holders of Israeli passports and prior to that the Higher Military Council allowed two Iranian warships to pass through the Suez Canal on their way to Syria – something that would have been unthinkable under Mubarak’s rule.   Despite more than thirty years of peace between Israel and Egypt, the majority of the Egyptian people still see Israel as an enemy thanks largely to its continued oppression of the Palestinians.  As they take charge of their own country after decades of dictatorial rule, it seems inevitable that Israel’s relations with Egypt will suffer and Israel will now suffer the consequences of relying on dictators like Mubarak to maintain its regional hegemony.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.