Feb 22nd 2011

Egypt - Israel Bilateral Relations

by Alon Ben-Meir

A noted journalist and author, Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations and Middle East studies at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. Ben-Meir holds a masters degree in philosophy and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University. His exceptional knowledge and insight, the result of more than 20 years of direct involvement in foreign affairs, with a focus on the Middle East, has allowed Dr. Ben-Meir to offer a uniquely invaluable perspective on the nature of world terrorism, conflict resolution and international negotiations. Fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, Ben-Meir's frequent travels to the Middle East and meetings with highly placed officials and academics in many Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Turkey provide him with an exceptionally nuanced level of awareness and insight into the developments surrounding breaking news. Ben-Meir often articulates
On Saturday, February 12 the Egyptian army issued a communiqué reassuring the Egyptian people and the international community of its intention to usher in a civilian government and honor all of Egypt's international commitments, including the peace treaty with Israel. Although such a pronouncement provided Israel with some comfort, many Israeli officials and ordinary citizens remain alarmed, perhaps for good reason, about the breathless development of events in Egypt and their mid and long-term implications on Israel and the Arab world. A careful analysis of these events strongly suggests, however, that the Egyptian military remains central to any future political development. Gauging the military conduct and support of the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, it would appear that the military will continue to steadfastly safeguard the peace treaty not only because the army feels obligated, but because peace with Israel will continue to serve Egypt's national strategic interests.

There are four major pillars to this argument, and together they form the basis for maintaining and may even improving Egyptian-Israeli bilateral relations, which open up new opportunities for further advancing the Arab-Israeli peace process:

To better appreciate the Egyptian military's commitment to the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, it should be recalled that it was Egyptian General Anwar El-Sadat who forged peace with Israel in the wake of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The ending of the 1973 war was rather unique as it was engineered by the then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to allow Egypt to emerge politically triumphant by preventing the Israelis who were poised to crush the Egyptian third Army. Kissinger argued that another Egyptian defeat would only usher in the next war, and that Egypt, as the leader of the Arab world, must feel victorious and equal to the Israelis in order to come to the negotiating table. Allowing the military to remain in the Sinai at the conclusion of the hostilities, was taken by the Egyptians, as it was intended to, as nothing less than as a military victory which the Egyptian people continue to celebrate. This same peace treaty was steadfastly observed and further strengthened by Sadat's successor and Vice President Hosni Mubarak, an Air Force General who became President following the assassination of Sadat.

This brief history between the two nations suggests four important implications: the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty has been forged, sustained and somewhat institutionalized by military men and there is nothing to indicate that the current military leadership has any reason downgrade, let alone abrogate the treaty. Neither Israel nor Egypt has violated the agreement even once and both militaries have cooperated on a number of levels including intelligence sharing. Moreover, both countries have greatly benefited from the reduced military expenditure resulting from the substantial reduction in the state of military readiness against one another. Finally, considering the enormous efforts it would take to get Egypt out of its current political, social and economic doldrums, it would be at best foolish to renew hostilities with a neighbor in possession of formidable conventional military machine augmented with reportedly the fourth largest stockpile of nuclear weapons. In fact, if anything, the current Egyptian Military High Command looks favorably at the Egyptian peace treaty because it serves Egypt's greater strategic regional interests.

As the military listened to the public's demands, they also realize that the focus of the young revolutionaries was on their own plight-social and political freedom, economic opportunity, better health care and education. The revolutionaries did not seek a scapegoat to blame for their dismal states of being; they did not blame Israel or the United States for their country's failures, and instead pointed the finger at their own leaders-the corruption and the stagnation from within. Here again, unlike many other Arabs who blame Israel, in particular, for all the ills that infect their society, the Egyptians appear to appreciate that peace with Israel as positive. Moreover, 70% of the Egyptian people were born since the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel was signed in 1979, and this majority of the population knows nothing but peace with Israel. Whereas Mubarak has failed the Egyptian people by stifling social, economic and political developments, he has managed to ingrain the peace agreement with Israel in the national psyche of the Egyptian people. After all, the peace was forged following a "military victory," and certainly not a defeat, a legacy that the military in particular wants to preserve. Even the Muslim Brotherhood vowed to keep the peace treaty with Israel should they assume power. Indeed, no revolution can make social, political and economic progress by becoming hostile to its neighbors, especially, in this case, Israel-with whom Egypt has no quarrel. Moreover, the Egyptian revolutionaries fully understood that each country looks after its own national interests, including Israel and the US, and it would have been up the Egyptian authorities to look after the interest of the Egyptian people. The Arab malaise is bred from within, and to change it must also come from the strength, tenacity and will of the Egyptian people. It is in that sense that Egypt might again set an example to be emulated by the rest of the Arab states.

Both Israel and the Egyptian military-which is central in Egyptian politics-share common concerns over Islamic extremism. They have cooperated in the past and will continue to collaborate in the future. Although the Muslim Brotherhood may indeed be an entirely different breed than the Iranian hard core Islamists, and have professed to pursue political pluralism, both Israel and the Egyptian military remain suspicious of the Brotherhood's ultimate intentions. The influence of the Brotherhood on Hamas is significant, and neither Israel nor the Egyptian military see Hamas as a legitimate interlocutor as long as Hamas continues to reject the existence of Israel in principle. It should be further noted that it was the Egyptian military, just as much as much as its Israeli counterpart, who kept tight control over the blockade of Gaza. Moreover, both the Israeli and the Egyptian militaries are concerned over the rise of Islamic extremism altogether, a phenomenon that is not likely to dissipate, if not further intensify, following the Egyptian revolution. To be sure, depending on how the Egyptian revolution evolves, Egypt and Israel have far greater common interests than differences and the Egyptian military in particular is keenly aware of the potential gains and losses. In particular, the Egyptian army would like to maintain excellent relations with its US counterpart and continue to receive the over one billion dollars in military assistance. It would be impossible to maintain either should the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty be undermined in any way.

Finally, what further cements future Egyptian-Israeli bilateral relations is the threat of Iran to become a regional hegemon possibly equipped with nuclear weapons. Iran has been, and will remain, a major concern to both Israel and Egypt and both countries have deep interests in preventing Iran from achieving its goals. Iran's growing influence in Iraq and the de facto takeover of Lebanon by Hezbollah only reinforce Israel and Egypt's concerns. For Egypt in particular, a nuclear Iran could overshadow Egypt's traditional leadership role in the Arab world and might even compel Egypt to pursue its own nuclear program. Neither prospect is attractive. Indeed, the last thing Egypt needs at this juncture is to enter into a nuclear race with Iran or continuously be threatened by Iran surrogates. Israel on the other hand, while enjoying its own nuclear deterrence, wishes to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons not only out of fear that it would neutralized its own weapons, but because it could prevent other Arab states, especially in the Gulf, who would seriously be intimidated by Iran, from striking peace with Israel. Thus, Egypt and Israel have a very strong interest to prevent Iran from realizing its nuclear ambition. For Egypt and Israel, teaming together on this vitally important issue is of a supreme importance to their national security. Egypt, in this particular case, looks at Israel as the bulwark that might eventually delay, if not stop, Iran's nuclear adventure which adds another layer to their bilateral relationship.

The revolution in Egypt is a game changer in many ways and neither Egypt itself nor the Middle East will be the same again. That said, I believe that the Egyptian people in particular will stay the course of peace with Israel because the people's revolution is about internal social, political and economic developments, it is about being free, productive and proud citizens. Maintaining the peace with Israel, under the guidance of the military, will help the young revolutionaries to focus on their critical mission and reach their destination with dignity while knowing that their struggle has only just begun.

Please note that a version of this article was published in the Jerusalem Post on February 18, 2011. 

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