In the wake of the revolution, there are real indications that Egypt’s foreign policy has a new source and purpose. The appointment of Dr Nabil El-Arabi, who is known for his patriotism and competence; discussions about a review of Egypt’s position on a number of international agreements such as the Convention on the International Criminal Court; and talk of opening up to Africa and other Arab states with whom relations have soured in the past, all indicate a serious change in the foreign policy of the regime in Cairo. Despite this, relations between Egypt and Israel, and the Arab-Israeli conflict in general, which are arguably the most important for the new Foreign Minister to deal with, remain unresolved.
This article aims to deal with two pivotal questions, namely:
1. What is the legacy of Mubarak and his regime on relations between Egypt and Israel?
2. How can Egypt’s policy on the Arab-Israeli conflict be reconstructed in the wake of the January 25th Revolution?
During the 30 years of Mubarak’s rule, in addition to open aggression on a daily basis against unarmed Palestinians, Israel fought a number of wars. Egypt, on the other hand, remained committed to the peace treaty at the expense of the Joint Arab Defence Agreement. Similarly, Cairo was unable to use diplomacy to prevent Israel’s aggressive approach even once. The invasion of Gaza in 2008/9 was a clear example of Israel’s ability to neutralise Egypt militarily and diplomatically.
Mubarak’s Egypt, as did almost all of the other Arab states, committed itself to what is known as the Arab Peace Initiative and made “peace a strategic choice”; this commitment has been renewed annually since March 2002. Meanwhile, Israel has basically sidestepped every Arab and international peace initiative and failed to implement most of its commitments under the Oslo Accords, highlighting the one-sided nature of the agreement. Indeed, since 2002, the Zionist state has carried out numerous attacks against the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon and Sudan killing thousands of Arabs across the region.
All of the signs suggest that Israeli society is shifting to the right politically, and extreme-right parties are represented in the Knesset. A string of right-wing Prime Ministers – Shamir, Netanyahu, Sharon and Netanyahu again – have been interspersed with supposed leftists like the hawkish Rabin and Barak; all have pushed the objectives of Zionism which include the expansion of the Israeli state. In one opinion poll carried out by Israel’s Haaretz newspaper in April 2009, 89% of Israelis polled want to either partially or fully re-occupy the Sinai Peninsula; 33% want to occupy all of Sinai; 19% want to occupy most of it; 29% think that it is a necessity to occupy a large part of it; 8% want to occupy a small part.
Israel has sought to strengthen its relations with Western allies, most notably the European Union, with membership discussions taking place just days before its attack on Gaza in late 2008. In fact, Israel has been described as having all the benefits of EU membership without actually being a member. While developing diplomatic and political relations in the international arena, Israel has also made substantial progress in the technological and military fields, exporting its expertise far and wide, including spy satellites and unmanned aircraft to China and India. For such a small country, Israel occupies a prominent position when the indicators of human and economic development are calculated. Conversely, Egypt under Mubarak made no notable progress in scientific research and industrialisation and still imports Western weapons and other foreign consumer goods.
Relations between Arab states and the US are not, in the main, mutually beneficial; they tend to represent US hegemony and domination over Arab capabilities.
Egypt is a strategic enemy of Israel
Despite the Peace Treaty which secured Israel’s southern border with Egypt and prevented Cairo from being an active player in the Israel-Palestine conflict, Egypt and Israel remained enemies throughout Mubarak’s rule. By definition Israel is a state which gives preferential treatment to on e ethnic group, the Jews; it is, therefore, a racist colonial entity surrounded by hostile or client states. In that context, Israel has to regard Egypt warily. Moreover, it needs Egypt to be subordinate to Israeli needs, especially on security matters. This is not an opinion gleaned from opinion polls, but is based on Israeli policies and practices, which include espionage activities, the instigation of sectarian strife and, according to some sources, the flooding of Egypt with cheap narcotics. It is enough to quote the former head of the Israeli Military Intelligence Directorate, Amos Yadlin, which alluded to his country’s successful implementation of a scheme put in place in 1979 aimed at “escalating social and sectarian tensions in order to generate an environment of constant conflict, in order to deepen the state of dissolution inside the structure, society and state of Egypt”.
As such, it is easy to understand Israel’s concerns should the Peace Treaty with Egypt become a victim of the Egyptian revolution, and to understand the panic that engulfed Israeli politicians following the overthrow of Mubarak. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu referred to an “earthquake” shaking the system of governance which threatens the emergence of a new Middle East, and US President Obama spoke of a “tsunami” in the region. Benjamin Ben Elizer, meanwhile, said that Israel had lost one of its most important allies and most loyal friends; other Israeli commentators claimed that over the years Mubarak had prevented the deaths of thousands of Israelis.
In line with its usual policy of exploiting any “threats to security” to extract yet more aid from American taxpayers, Israel used the Egyptian revolution and other Arab uprisings to support its efforts to bolster its security budget. On 8th March 2011, the Israeli newspaper Maariv, mentioned an increase in the security and defence budget of about $700 million and the development of an anti-missile system. In the Wall Street Journal on the same day, Barak spoke about Israel’s intentions to request an additional $20 billion from the US.
There is no doubt that those in charge of Egyptian diplomacy now realise that its weakness over the past three decades was due to the Egyptian leadership’s lack of political will, its complete subordination to the West, and the absence of the political vision to promote Egyptian interests. These were coupled with an imbalance of power between Egypt and the Arab states on one side and between Egypt and Israel on the other. This was and remains a result of the weakness of the Arab system of governance and the influence of the Israel Lobby internationally.
The revolutionary momentum and the foreign policy
Egyptian foreign policy makers have a window of opportunity for change provided by the revolution; this should be maximised by the new democratic regime and a popularly-elected national parliament. Such change should reflect the demand for Egyptians to regain their dignity, reduce dependence on external aid, promote Egyptian and Arab interests and correct the imbalance of power that has existed between Egypt and Israel for decades.
It is also essential to use the momentum of the popular revolution to counter US foreign policy which has demonstrated that it is unable or unwilling to put meaningful pressure on Israel. Egypt must be able to translate the energy of the revolution into actions and attitudes. If the policy-makers fail to do this, then it is entirely feasible for Egyptians to pour onto the streets in their millions in order to define their own foreign policy. Will the Israelis and Americans feel able to challenge two or even three million protestors in Cairo and Alexandria demanding the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador and the severing of ties with Israel?
The reconstruction of Egyptian foreign policy will be incomplete unless and until efforts to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict returns to basics and the Israelis are ready to make real concessions for peace. A genuine peace will not be achieved except through addressing the issues at the core of the conflict; the occupation and building settlement on occupied land; human rights violations; and Israel’s racist laws and policies against its non-Jewish citizens. In other words, there will be no peace without the removal two of its defining characteristics, racism and colonialism, from Israel.
At that stage, it is inevitable that issues such as the right of return, the dismantling of settlements, compensation payments, the Judaisation of Jerusalem, the siege of Gaza and massive reconstruction of infrastructure destroyed by Israel will all be dealt with in a meaningful and practical manner.
Negotiations at which such matters are on the table with a sincere desire to find solutions will be in a strong position to achieve peace and security for all. Similar objectives were up for discussion in South Africa and Ireland, for example, with encouraging results. Any “solutions” which ignore or cast aside any of these issues will by their nature be defective and will offer neither peace nor security, and certainly no justice, for anyone. It is a fact that “negotiations” to-date have depended on concessions from one side only, the Palestinians.
Mobilising minds before armies
It is not hard to imagine that Egyptian diplomats have a number of papers which they could use to guarantee that the army will stay in its barracks. The Peace Treaty with Israel is, naturally, one such document. There exists the possibility of seeking some modifications to the text in order to strengthen the Egyptian presence in the Sinai to combat drug smuggling and infiltration. It is also possible to propose what is called “the framework of the agreement for the peace treaty” which was referred to in the preamble of Treaty and which provides clearly for the withdrawal of Israel to the 1967 borders, the establishment of a self-governing authority in the West Bank and Gaza, and the agreement on final arrangements within five years all of which are within the framework of UN resolutions 242 and 338.
This was the alternative proposed by Sadat – or proposed to him – in order to justify his agreement with Israel and his abandonment of confrontation. In case some may think that there was a lost opportunity then, as is sometimes suggested, it must be pointed out that history has shown that Israel’s agreement on these matters was insincere.
Similarly, it is possible to use article 8 of the Treaty, which provides for the establishment of a committee for financial claims; incoming Foreign Minister Dr El-Araby has indicated that he has written two memorandums in this regard which were both shelved.
Due to the fact that Israeli propaganda campaigns are one of the country’s lifelines, diplomatic and media activity should focus on the disclosure of the reality of the Zionist state as a core part of Egyptian foreign policy. A rise in criticism of Israeli policies around the world was one of the major “threats” to the Zionist state highlighted at the recent Herzliya Conference, an annual event which looks at strategic issues affecting Israel.
The existence of a popularly-elected government and parliament in Egypt will make it possible to look at and, hopefully, deal with a number of other issues, including the lifting of the siege of Gaza, recognition of a State of Palestine within the 1967 borders, action at the International Criminal Court, curbs on arms exports to Israel, and high-level media campaigns to promote humanitarian causes close to the heart of the Egyptian people. Where once it was just a dream, it is now possible to imagine Egypt having an effective foreign policy which restores regional balance and legitimises Arab interests.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.