News / Middle East

Egypt-Israel: A Cold Peace Could Get Colder

Fall of Mubarak regime, Sinai border incident, Israeli-Palestinian deadlock put relations in dangerous state of limbo

Egyptian protesters gather in front of the Israeli embassy in Cairo, Egypt, August 20, 2011.
Egyptian protesters gather in front of the Israeli embassy in Cairo, Egypt, August 20, 2011.
Mohamed Elshinnawi

Egyptian-Israeli relations may be headed to their lowest point in three decades. Recently, an Israeli Sinai border incursion in mid-August left six Egyptian guards dead.  The event helped fuel a subsequent Egyptian mob attack on the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, with some protestors even calling for the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador from Cairo.

Recent data suggests that tense feelings may have been brewing even before these recent clashes.  A poll commissioned in June 2011 by Newsweek/Daily Beast surveying 1,008 randomly selected Egyptian adults indicated that only 3 percent of respondents had a positive impression of Israel. The same survey suggested that 47 percent of those polled would amend the Camp David Accords, while 23 percent wanted an outright repeal, showing that ambivalence about the historic treaty remains high.

Meanwhile, Israel has launched a war of words against Egypt’s transitional government over its apparent inability to protect the Israeli diplomatic compound. Can the two countries resolve their differences and return to a peaceful relationship?

Origins of the status quo

Amr Hamzawy is an assistant political science professor at Cairo University. He says, “Egyptian-Israeli relations can best be described as facing a crisis since the January 25 revolution for so many reasons.” He points to several reasons for growing anti-Israeli sentiment among Egyptians: “Israeli actions in the occupied Palestinian territories and southern Lebanon for years, former president Mubarak’s practices serving Israeli interests and the latest border clashes that left Egyptian soldiers dead.”

Demonstrators burn an Israeli flag during a protest in Cairo September 9, 2011.
Demonstrators burn an Israeli flag during a protest in Cairo September 9, 2011.

Ori Nir is the spokesperson for Americans for Peace Now, which describes itself as a “pro-Israel, pro-peace” advocacy group in the United States that considers the current Israeli government intransigent. "Egyptians were angry already because of the Israeli Gaza blockade and the lack of progress in the peace talks. Then came the border incident to further deteriorate even the security cooperation between Israel and Egypt,” Nir said.

Nir faulted Israel for what he said was an inappropriate Israeli reaction to the incident. “There was a lack of an immediate, resolute Israeli reaction in the form of a quick apology and the formation of a joint investigative committee to define all circumstances and assign responsibility for those killings.”

But Robert Satloff, Executive Director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy argues that the anti-Israeli sentiment in Egypt has nothing to do with what Israel is doing now. “[Anti-Israeli sentiment] is the product of more than 20 years of lack of investment in peace which has grown cold and even frigid,” Satloff said. “In order for the Mubarak regime to protect itself against accusations of working quietly with Israel, the regime stoked anti-Israeli public sentiment in Egyptian society.”

Both sides at fault?

Satloff goes on to say the current military administration in Egypt has done little to improve the situation, noting that there is no major public figure in Egypt today who will to stand up and say that peace with Israel is in Egypt’s national interest and needs the same protection it was afforded under Mubarak.

Hamzawy is doubtful that Egyptian-Israeli relations can improve any time soon. For that to happen, he says, a peace settlement has to be reached between the Israelis and Palestinians.

“Israel needs to come to terms with legitimate popular demands, such as creating an independent Palestinian state, stop settlement activities in the occupied land and show its commitment to non-belligerent orientation in the region,” he says.

For their part, Israeli officials have stressed that they have made generous proposals for peace with the Palestinians over the years, notably at the Camp David peace talks in 2000 and again in 2008 with a detailed proposal by then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. In each case, Israeli officials say, their proposals were rejected without counter-proposals from the Palestinian side.

Another factor blocking progress toward a peace settlement, Israeli officials cite, is the 2007 takeover of the Gaza Strip by Hamas, which is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States and many Western countries. Since then, Hamas fighters have periodically shelled nearby Israeli settlements and towns with rocket fire.

Cold peace gets colder

Though the failure to reach an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord may have been a factor in Israel’s relations with Egypt, this year’s so-called “Arab Spring” revolutions have increased the tensions.

Since the start of the Egyptian popular uprising in Tahrir Square, no one has dared to predict which way the relationship between Cairo and Jerusalem will veer.  But Nir noted that the reason why the peace between Israel and Egypt was considered cold was the nature of the dynamics surrounding the Camp David Accords which, he said, were never really embraced by the Egyptian citizenry. However, Egyptian -Israeli relations have experienced numerous highs and lows since the signing of the Camp David Accords, depending upon regional events.

Contrary to Nir’s assertion that Egyptians never embraced the accords, the data in the Newsweek/Daily Beast poll state that only 23 percent would support an outright repeal of the treaty. Even at a time of heightened tensions and a moribund peace process with Palestinians, the data suggests Egyptians may still see some value in preserving elements of the accord that have kept the two sides from war for decades.Nir also believes that an early push on the Palestinian issue, particularly by the U.S., could have helped avert regional tensions in general.

“The U.S. should have been much more proactive in resuming the peace process during the past year or so,” Nir said. “It should have been much more proactive to find an alternative to the Palestinian action at the U.N., which would have created a foundation for reliable negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians and indeed a better regional atmosphere.”

Satloff said he does not anticipate the Egyptians going to war with Israel, but cannot rule out problems down the road. “I do not think this relationship in a ‘no-peace, no-war’ situation is sustainable, there will be a potential natural drift toward conflict,” Satloff said.

Satloff added he called on President Obama to intervene personally to preserve the Camp David Accords.

”Everything America has accomplished in the Middle East during the last 30 years has been built on the foundations of the Camp David Accords, and the transformation of Egypt from Soviet client to American ally. If that foundation collapses, much of America’s standing in the region collapses as well,” said Satloff.

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