News / Middle East

Egypt-Israel Ties Are Stronger Than They Appear

A Palestinian prints posters in preparation for a prisoner swap between Hamas and Israel, in Gaza City, October 16, 2011.
A Palestinian prints posters in preparation for a prisoner swap between Hamas and Israel, in Gaza City, October 16, 2011.
Elizabeth Arrott

Egypt's mediation of a deal swapping Palestinian prisoners for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit is the interim military government's first successful foray into high-profile foreign affairs.

The move appears to counter predictions that Israel's ties with post-revolution Egypt would founder.  

The prisoner exchange deal represents a diplomatic coup for Egypt's military, and Israel has thanked its neighbor for "the central role" it played in bringing it about.  

The warm words are a stark change after the tensions of the past months, which included Israel's killing of five Egyptian border guards, a retaliatory riot and attack of Israel's embassy in Cairo, and the fleeing of the Israeli ambassador from the country.    

On top of these troubles, Israel has been alarmed by the rise of Islamists in Egypt since former president Hosni Mubarak was toppled in February. During his time in power, Israel's long-time ally had suppressed Islamists, some of whom killed his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, in part for signing a peace treaty with Israel.  

Enduring relations

But even with those concerns, Egyptian-Israeli relations may be less fragile than they appear.  

At a fundamentalist rally in downtown Cairo this week, the man who spent 30 years in prison for plotting Sadat's assassination argues that the peace treaty should be preserved.    

Aboud el Zomor said Egypt needs to remain committed to the deal to achieve stability. The recently released ringleader speaks now in lawyerly terms, saying "there are mechanisms within the treaty itself" that allow for modifications. He adds there is a platform for talks on such key issues as economic and social relations.  

Others in Cairo, including the nation's military rulers - the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF - share that pragmatism.   

Closing tunnels

Egyptian political analyst and publisher Hisham Kassem points to the SCAF's dealings with the illegal supply tunnels between Egypt and the Palestinian-ruled Gaza Strip. The tunnels were an open secret in the Mubarak years, undermining Egypt's nominal promise to keep the borders to the blockaded territory, with its anti-Israeli militants, closed.    

"The policy now seems to be much more rational because SCAF has even acquired new equipment to destroy the tunnels and put an end to that, and started opening the border again in a sensible and regular way," said Kassem.

Kassem believes such "sensible" policies will continue, no matter who is elected to succeed Egypt's military government.  

"The next president is not really going to be the commander-in-chief. The commander-in-chief will be within the army, even unofficially, and the military knows the cost of war and the consequences of one. So if we were to get a government and a president who want to go to war, the military will not go along," said Kassem.

Maintaining peace

Kassem argues that, if nothing else, war would be too expensive - he cites a figure of $100 billion - and would cut Egypt off from Israel's western allies and their much-needed aid.  

Also, public support for conflict with Israel appears slim.

Despite frequently expressed anti-Israel sentiment, recent opinion surveys indicate some 75 percent of Egyptians want to keep the peace treaty with Israel intact. Most, it appears, favor the status quo in foreign affairs, and simply want to rebuild their own country after decades of authoritarian rule.    

American University in Cairo professor Said Sadek said there may be grudging respect for the Israeli government, which spent five years trying to get their soldier, Gilad Shalit, released.  

"The whole Arab Spring is about domestic issues, you know, turning subjects into citizens. People do not want to be treated like subjects.  They want to be treated like Shalit is being treated by his own government: [that] they care about them," said Sadek.

Sadek argues that Egyptians, too, want that kind of respect and concern from their leaders.

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