Egypt-Israel relations in a deep valley, but not for the first time

Israel and Egypt have traversed many peaks and valleys in their relationship since they signed a landmark peace agreement in 1979.

They are now in a deep valley.

Nevertheless, they have been in deep valleys before, but – because of strong common interests – they always found a way to navigate through them.

For instance, from the time the peace agreement was signed amid great pomp and circumstance on the White House lawn in March 1979 to when Israel withdrew from the Sinai under the terms of the agreement in April 1982, Israel attacked the nuclear reactor in Iraq and enacted laws in the Knesset to annex Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. Furthermore, two months after the Sinai withdrawal, Israel launched the First Lebanon War. All these moves infuriated the Egyptians.

The peace treaty survived all that in its infancy, including the Muslim Brotherhood’s 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat, who forged the treaty with Israel, and it survived much more during its years of maturation, including the First Intifada, the Second Intifada, the Second Lebanon War, the brief rule of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi during the “Arab Spring,” and five mini-wars with Hamas in Gaza.

At each of those junctures, the peace treaty survived, despite concern and threats that it would not. It survived, even though Egypt recalled its ambassador for extended periods during the First Lebanon War and the Second Intifada, as well as for a brief interlude in 2014 under Morsi following IDF action in Gaza against Hamas.

While Egypt has yet to recall its ambassador during the current war – perhaps a sign that the relationship is not in as much turmoil as it was during those periods when they did recall their envoy – it has, in recent days, made its anger at Israel for taking over the Palestinian side of the Rafah crossing abundantly clear. It has done so in two ways: announcing that it will join Turkey and support South Africa’s genocide case against Israel at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, and halting the flow of humanitarian aid to Gaza through the Rafah crossing – an ironic step since the first ones to suffer from such a move will be the Gazans who need that aid.

It is telling that neither the US in particular nor the international community in general is pressuring Egypt to alter this decision and allow the trucks in – something one might have assumed they would do out of concern for the humanitarian situation in Gaza.

Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz said earlier this week that he had raised the issue with his German and British counterparts and would do the same in the coming days with Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry did not let that statement go unanswered and “denounced the desperate attempts” by Israel to hold his country responsible for the “unprecedented humanitarian crisis witnessed in the Gaza Strip, which is a direct result of indiscriminate Israeli atrocities committed against the Palestinians for more than seven months.”

The reason Egypt has given for this move is that it does not want to legitimize Israel’s takeover of the border crossing. Unofficially, it also apparently has to do with not wanting images of IDF soldiers inspecting the trucks broadcast inside Egypt, where the public sympathizes greatly with the plight of the Palestinians inside Gaza.

THEN-PRIME MINISTER Golda Meir is accompanied by defense minister Moshe Dayan, as they meet with IDF soldiers on the Golan Heights during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Egypt and Syria launched an attack against Israel on Yom Kippur – during the month of Ramadan. (credit: REUTERS)

THE EGYPTIANS do sympathize greatly with the Palestinians, though not enough to put any pressure on their government to open the border and allow refugees to find temporary refuge in Sinai. The government has also not faced any global pressure to take in refugees fleeing the fighting.

Imagine, by contrast, the world outcry if, at the outset of the Ukrainian war, any of the countries bordering Ukraine had announced they would close their borders to Ukrainian refugees out of fear that they would settle there permanently.

Israel sensitive to Egyptian concerns

Regardless, Israel’s surprise move to take over the Rafah crossing last week showed that it was sensitive to Egyptian concerns because it ensured that Gazans fleeing the city would not go south to Egypt but, rather, to areas in the north or west, toward the Mawasi area, near where the uprooted settlements of Gush Katif were once located.

Ironically, had Egypt effectively controlled the border with Gaza – had it destroyed the smuggling tunnels from Gaza into Sinai and not turned a blind eye to the bribery at the crossing that was allowing Hamas to smuggle in arms and dual-purpose material, enabling it to significantly increase its military capabilities – then Israel would not have such a great need to control the border and the Philadelphia corridor between Gaza and Egypt.

But Egypt did not control the border. Hamas used it to create a small arms industry, and now Israel, in a mission to destroy Hamas’s military capabilities, finds it necessary to control the crossing today and the Philadelphia corridor, above and below ground, tomorrow.

Egypt’s decision on Sunday to join Turkey and support South Africa’s case against Israel at the International Court of Justice is connected to Israel’s actions in and around Rafah, or, as an Egyptian Foreign Ministry statement put it, “The announcement of the intervention, in this case, comes in light of the expansion in scope and scale of Israeli violations against civilians in Gaza.”

While the move rankles, it should be seen as a way for the Egyptians to let off steam – and engage in some virtue-signaling towards their population – without downgrading or breaking off ties with Israel.

It is similar to what the United Arab Emirates did at the United Nations last week, when it introduced the resolution to the UN General Assembly saying that “the State of Palestine is qualified for membership in the United Nations by Article 4 of the Charter and should therefore be admitted” and called on the UN Security Council, which, via a US veto, rejected admitting the Palestinian Authority as a full member state, to “reconsider the matter favorably.”

Just as some in Jerusalem might have expected the UAE, with whom Israel signed a normalization agreement in 2020, not to initiate an action Israel adamantly opposes, the same people might have expected that Egypt, with whom Israel enjoys a very close security and intelligence relationship, would not join a court case accusing it of genocide.

Notably, however, it’s important to view these actions, at least up to this point, as attempting to appease domestic public opinion rather than as a significant downgrading of ties.

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