Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Ambassador (ret.) Yoram Ettinger: Egypt-Israel relations and the Palestinian issue



Despite Western and Israeli media preoccupation with the Palestinian issue - during the July 10, 2016 meeting between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Egypt’s Foreign Minister, Sameh Shoukry - the Israel-Egypt agenda dramatically transcends the Palestinian issue, which is not the crux of the Arab-Israeli conflict, not a crown-jewel of Arab policy-making and not a core cause of the 1,400-year-old turbulence, violent intolerance, instability, unpredictability, subversion and terrorism in the Middle East.

Notwithstanding a statement made by Egypt’s Foreign Minister during his recent visit to Jerusalem – that resolving the Palestinian issue “will have a dramatic impact on the Middle East” – the intensifying Arab Tsunami, which erupted in 2011, threatening to topple every sitting Arab regime from Northwestern Africa to the Persian Gulf, has exposed the myth of the supposed centrality of the Arab-Israeli conflict, in general, and the Palestinian issue, in particular. None of the recent – as well as past – domestic and regional upheavals in the Middle East has been directly, or indirectly, related to the Palestinian issue. Contrary to conventional “wisdom,” the Palestinian issue has always been a side – and not a main – dish on the tectonic Middle East menu, which has been dominated by intra-Muslim and intra-Arab explosive ingredients.

Irrespective of Shoukry’s comment, during his June 29, 2016 meeting with Mahmoud Abbas – that “the Palestinian cause will always remain a priority of Egypt’s foreign policy” – neither Egypt, nor any other Arab country, has ever considered the Palestinian issue a top priority, warranting shedding blood, sweat or tears. Arab policy-makers have always talked the talk on behalf the Palestinian issue (in order to divert attention away from critical domestic and regional failures), but never walked the walk (financially and militarily).  They adhere to the Arab saying: “On words one does not pay custom.”

The actual top priority for President Al-Sisi, in face of clear and present danger, personally and nationally, is homeland security and countering-terrorism, thus inducing closer cooperation with Israel.  Therefore, he is concerned about the historical connection (since the 1950s) between the Palestinian leadership and the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest transnational Islamic terror organization, which has plagued Egypt since 1928, and whose ideology – according to Al-Sisi - nurtured the Taliban, Al Qaeda, ISIS and other Islamic terror organizations. Al-Sisi is alarmed about the adverse effect of Palestinian terrorism – against the backdrop of the Palestinian connection to Iran’s Ayatollahs, Saddam Hussein and North Korea - on Egypt’s homeland security, especially Egyptian counter-terrorism operations in the Sinai Peninsula. Thus, he follows in the footsteps of President Sadat, who resisted President Carter’s pressure to place the Palestinian issue at the center of the 1977-79 Israel-Egypt peace process. Sadat was concerned about the destabilizing impact of a Palestinian entity, as suggested by the subversive track record of Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas in Egypt (1950s), Syria (1966), Jordan (1970), Lebanon (1970-1983) and worst of all in Kuwait (1990).

In 2016, President Al-Sisi – just like other pro-US Arab leaders, in Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States – expands intelligence, counter-terrorism and overall geo-strategic cooperation, operationally and technologically, with Israel, the global role-model of counter-terrorism, in defiance of Palestinian opposition.

Tackling additional top priorities – the lethal threat of Iran’s Ayatollahs and the reconstruction of the Egyptian economy, which will determine the life expectancy of his regime - Al-Sisi has enhanced, drastically, overall cooperation with Saudi Arabia. Experiencing the cold shoulder of President Obama, who ignores the track record of the Muslim Brotherhood (and Iran), considering them a legitimate organization, Al-Sisi shares the Saudi view, as expressed by the managing editor of Asharq Al-Awsat, which reflects the views of the House of Saud: “The US is engaged in a direct political campaign and a proxy military campaign against its old Middle Eastern allies, the [Sunni] Arabs….”  The opinion editor of Asharq Al-Awsat, also known for his close ties with the Saudi royal family, stated: “The Obama Administration has destroyed stability in the Middle East… planting ticking bombs… that will be capable of exploding even after Obama’s departure…. Iran is taking advantage… widening its aggressive political and military activities against America’s [Arab] allies….” 

The more eroded the US posture of deterrence, the closer the strategic ties between Egypt and Israel, which is perceived to be a reliable “life insurance agent.”

In addition, Al-Sisi aims to leverage Israel’s bolstered position in Africa, in order to restore Egypt’s leadership in the continent, economically and militarily. He is also aware of Israel’s global leadership in the areas of agriculture, irrigation, water treatment and sewage recycling, at a time when Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam might undermine Egypt’s current share of the Nile water.

Obviously, Al-Sisi is anxious to restore constructive relations with the US - a prerequisite to economic growth and upgraded national security – assessing that Israel would be a unique “character witness” in the courts of US public opinion and the US Congress. He assumes that an emerging Israel-Egypt team would enhance the image of Egypt on Capitol Hill, as well as entice US investors, businessmen and tourists to return to Egypt.


President Al-Sisi firmly believes that when smothered by the lethal sandstorms of Islamic terrorism and Iran, one must leverage the mutually-beneficial ties with Israel, rather than focus on the Palestinian tumbleweed.