[Briefing for World Politics Review.]
Egypt’s Tahrir Square uprising in January 2011 sent waves of anxiety coursing through the Israeli establishment. By mid-February, a close partner had been deposed in Cairo, and popular Egyptian sentiment demanded a tough, polemical line against Israel: no more gas deals, no security cooperation, no political collaboration. The strategic relationship reached its nadir that fall, when a crowd in September stormed the Israeli Embassy while the Egyptian military stood by. A phone call from Washington was required to resolve that crisis, prompting the Egyptians to intervene before any Israelis were injured.
Fast-forward to today, and the Israel-Egypt strategic relationship appears to be back on the same consistent if occasionally bumpy track it followed for most of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s three decades in power.
Egypt is poised for another round of outright military rule, this time by retired Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, a strongman who for now can ignore public opinion along with complicating factors like political parties and open dissent. Moreover, el-Sissi, expected to sweep to the presidency in elections May 26-27, appears to hate Islamists as much as Israel does; under his management, Egypt has pursued the Muslim Brotherhood perhaps more intensively than Israel has gone after Hamas.
But beneath the surface, significant factors are tugging at the relationship. Unless it is renegotiated, it is likely to suffer from continued strategic drift, tactical challenges and political misunderstandings. Strategically, leaders in Egypt and Israel will have to articulate whether they see their partnership as a union of minority regimes against Islamist masses, or whether there is a broader and more compelling basis for the partnership. Tactically, both countries desperately need a more effective way to get a grip on the Sinai Peninsula. And politically, both governments will find the relationship under increasing pressure because of public opposition and strains with Washington, which provides the relationship’s ballast and cornerstone.
Strategically, the relationship between Egypt and Israel revolves around a shared interest in managing rather than resolving the Palestinian question. The two states also share a common aversion to Islamist politics, and, except during the short-lived presidency of Mohammed Morsi in Egypt, both have viewed the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas as a threat. These shared interests drive the Israel-Egypt relationship more than does the military aid from Washington that grew out of the Camp David Accords, which amounted to $3.1 billion to Israel and $1.5 billion to Egypt last year. Today, the security establishments of both Israel and Egypt view their U.S. subsidies as an earned right rather than a bribe, and would continue to see shared interests between their countries in the unlikely event that U.S. aid payments ceased. Nevertheless, a shared aversion to Islamists and a common line of credit from a U.S. government widely disparaged in both Egypt and Israel is hardly a robust basis for a strategic partnership.
The tactical problems multiply the pressure. Israel needs a quiet border with Egypt and can still rely on the Egyptian army to act as an ally rather than an enemy. But the Egyptian state has proved incapable of either pacifying or modernizing Sinai, and often engages in behavior that intensifies the threat from the region. Egypt’s current counterinsurgency campaign on the peninsula is a case in point; so far it has radicalized and alienated even more of Sinai’s inhabitants while doing little to curb the violent jihadist groups that have armed and trained there and launched attacks from the peninsula into the rest of Egypt as well as Gaza and Israel. A quiet Sinai is something Egypt wants and simply cannot deliver. This failure creates real security pressure for Egypt and Israel both.
Finally, political accountability within each state serves as a strong countervailing pressure against the relationship between them. In Israel, an increasingly right-wing public expresses skepticism of the “cold peace” with Israel’s Arab partners in the Palestinian Authority, Jordan and Egypt. In Egypt, public sentiment runs strongly against the relationship with Israel and in favor of a Palestinian state. Outside of the security establishment, few Egyptians see any reason to provide help to Israel; they oppose Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory, and they see no direct dividends to Egypt for its support of Israel.
Politically, Israel’s maximalist stance toward the Palestinians makes it all but impossible for an Arab leader to enjoy an amicable and open relationship with Israel; only undemocratic leaders who are not concerned with domestic accountability can do so. Today Egypt’s relationship with Israel depends on stifling Egyptian public opinion, which remains unconvinced of the utility of a peace treaty entering its fourth decade.
For now, the security establishments of Egypt and Israel still cooperate closely. But profound distrust has flared on both sides, among both the public and the political elite. Both governments need to find a more compelling basis for the relationship and do more legwork to create a narrative of public support, especially in Egypt. If not, the relationship will continue to degrade, fueling illiberalism and authoritarianism while delivering diminishing returns in military cooperation and anti-jihadi operations.
Israel and Egypt are not likely to return to the state of conflict between them that lasted from 1948 until 1978. But the dysfunctional relationship has relied excessively on secretive military-military contacts, which have failed to make headway on the most pressing security concern that joins Egypt and Israel. The storming of the Israeli Embassy in Cairo in 2011 was a prelude to today’s implosion in Sinai, which affects Egypt even more than Israel. If the two governments can’t find a way to manage this shared threat, it augurs poorly for the prospects for cooperation in the future.
Thanassis Cambanis is a fellow at The Century Foundation. His next book, “Once Upon a Revolution: An Egyptian Story,” chronicles political activism after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, and will be published in January.