On Monday, during an open Q&A in the Knesset Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman stated: “Egypt is the most important and serious ally we have in the Middle East and among Arab states. I invested a lot of effort in building trust and cooperative relations.” This is a very interesting statement from the man who in 1998 suggested bombing the Aswan Dam in retaliation for Egyptian support for Yasser Arafat.
Arafat is no longer around and neither is Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, and Liberman too might not be the same old Liberman we know from yesteryear. A senior Egyptian intelligence officer very recently told me that in the eyes of the Egyptian government, Liberman is the most pragmatic man in the Israeli government and “we can work with him.”
Israel and Egypt are at peace since 1979. When Egyptian president Anwar Sadat made his historic visit to Jerusalem in November 1977, Arafat led the Arab world to break ties with Israel. The Arab League headquarters moved out of Cairo and Egypt became a pariah state among the Arabs and Muslims. In 1982 when Arafat was forced to leave Beirut, on his way to Tunis he made a point of stopping in Cairo, publicly embracing president Mubarak, who had been Sadat’s deputy, and renewing his ties with Egypt – the same Egypt that made peace with Israel.
That peace treaty has survived the assassination of the Egyptian president, repeated wars between Israel and the Palestinians, and between Israel and Lebanon, the rise to power of Hamas in Gaza and the rise and fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. With Egyptian sovereignty challenged by terrorists in Sinai, Israel has agreed to every Egyptian request to deploy more forces and weapons in Sinai, including assault helicopters, way above and beyond the limitations of the Israeli- Egyptian security annex of the peace treaty. Egyptian- Israeli security and intelligence cooperation is a key pillar of the relationship and crucial to the security of both sides. Hamas is a common enemy, as are other expressions of Islamic radicalism in the region. Those common threats have expanded beyond Israel’s other borders to include Jordan and even Saudi Arabia.
Egypt is in a key place in the Middle East today. Even with its faltering economy and its very difficult war against ISIS and other terrorists in Sinai, Egypt understands that it can play an irreplaceable role in advancing broader regional stability, security and economic opportunity. Egypt is the lifeline for Gaza and Hamas knows it. The closure of almost all of the smuggling tunnels between Sinai and Gaza by Egypt has crippled the Gazan economy and Hamas has lost its main source of income. Egypt keeps the Rafah crossing into Sinai closed almost all year. The people of Gaza are paying the price for the failings and lies of their own government.
Egypt has accused Hamas of collaborating with anti-Egyptian terrorists in Sinai. Hamas leaders went to Cairo and swore to the Egyptian officials that they were not assisting any war against Egypt, but they were lying and Egyptian intelligence produced the evidence.
Egypt has made it clear that the Rafah crossing will remained closed most of the time until Hamas agrees to the redeployment of Palestinian Authority forces along the border. This is not acceptable to Hamas and yet it remains the demand of both Egypt and the PA for the reuniting of Gaza and the West Bank under one authority. Egypt, like Israel, wants to see the end of Hamas rule in Gaza.
PA President Mahmoud Abbas is in constant contact with President Sisi and sees Egypt as a steadfast ally of the Palestinian people, and yet Abbas also knows that he gets no discounts from Sisi on compromises that the Palestinians will have to make in any deal with Israel.
This includes the continued security cooperation with Israel in the West Bank.
The Egyptians seem to have a plan and they are working on its implementation. First, President Sisi announced that Egypt was willing to mediate between Israel and the Palestinians. Then Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukry visited Abbas in Ramallah. He listened very carefully to Abbas, asked some tough questions and went back to Cairo. Then he came to Jerusalem.
He listened carefully to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, asked some tough questions and then went back to Cairo.
President Sisi then announced he would be inviting Netanyahu and Abbas to meet with him together in Cairo. From my understanding, Egypt, after listening to both sides and taking note of what they want and what they can do, is now preparing to tell both sides what they have to do – which includes renewing direct Israeli- Palestinian negotiations, with the assistance of Egypt, and as I understand, with the additional presence of Jordan at the table. This is essentially the creation of the regional quartet that I have been speaking about for more than two years now.
Interestingly, in talking about this to several Israeli and Palestinian officials, I heard the very same words.
They said: “we can say no to US Secretary of State John Kerry and to President Barack Obama, but we cannot say no to President Sisi.” We will see if that turns out to be true.
The author is founder and co-chairman of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives, a joint Israeli-Palestinian “think” and “do” tank.