Netanyahu on the Road to Egypt

YERUSHALAYIM -

A few days ago, senior Israeli and Egyptian representatives met. Not for the first time. It was a routine meeting. All the issues between their two countries have been addressed in these encounters openly, everything on the table.

“We discuss everything,” a senior official in the Israeli Foreign Ministry told us. He stressed that the Egypt of today is not the Egypt of the past. We had good relations with President Hosni Mubarak; and we have no complaints, he added, about the period when Morsi was in power, either. But now, the situation is incomparably better.

“The Egyptians understand that we can help them in many ways, and so the all the other considerations have been shunted aside. They don’t yet want to publicize all this, and so all the efforts of the former Israeli ambassadors to paint a bleak picture of the bilateral relations were based on the Egypt of at least five years ago, and on understandably hurt feelings.”

In that same meeting of a few days ago, they again discussed the possibility of a summit meeting between Egyptian President Al Fattah el-Sisi and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. It was agreed that the Egyptian leader would not travel to Israel. Therefore, it was agreed, in principle, to hold the summit in Egypt. It only remains to work out the timing and other details.

We should not be surprised if we hear on short notice that the two leaders will be meeting, either in Cairo or Sharm el-Sheikh, or possibly in a third country. But it doesn’t matter. It will happen.

The Egyptian agenda under el-Sisi, say diplomats in Yerushalayim, will definitely impact bilateral relations, including the perception of the peace with Israel. When the incumbent president of Egypt took office, he set an order of priorities that placed domestic issues above foreign affairs. The immediate consequence was a clear downgrading of the importance of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The interesting thing, they tell us in the Foreign Ministry, is that according to a poll taken about a year ago, among thousands of young Arabs in Moslem countries in the Mideast, it emerged that not only Egypt was pushing the Palestinian problem aside, but that it had fallen to fourth or fifth place in their order of priorities regarding the Arab world.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been superseded by other, more urgent issues, such as terrorism, the economy with emphasis on unemployment, and so on. Against this backdrop of change, they emphasize in Yerushalayim, we sense a revolution in attitudes toward Israel, not only in Cairo but in Riyadh, Amman, the Gulf States, and elsewhere in the Arab world.

The security threats facing them all, from Iran, Hamas and the global jihad in all its nefarious manifestations, have created a common cause between Israel and Egypt.

Senior Egyptian military officers meet almost daily with their Israeli counterparts to establish channels of communication and exchanges of intelligence, to discuss the problem of arms smuggling and joint operations against terrorist forces.

Egypt also views Hamas as a security threat, as el-Sisi has said over and over, due to its connection with the Muslim Brotherhood. Both countries have an interest in keeping Hamas from expanding militarily and developing their connection with jihadist entities in northern Sinai that have already affiliated themselves with Islamic State.

But it is not only common security concerns that draw Israel and Egypt closer together. Economic interests are also at work. While it is premature to talk about a “revolution,” there are already indications of a new openness to doing business with Israel. The Egyptian view, which held until about two years ago that the peace will remain a “cold peace” as long as the Palestinian problem remains unsolved, is beginning to show cracks.

As a result, from the moment when the Egyptians realized that they were entering an energy crisis, voices were heard loud and clear that the government should not rule out the option of buying gas from Israel.

“Today, the Egyptians understand that their survival requires a different approach to Israel, and if their neighbor has energy sources that are available and affordable, sign a contract with them, because the economic needs of the Egyptian people take precedence over all other considerations,” an Israeli diplomat told us.

El-Sisi and his advisors, by contrast with Mubarak, have come to the conclusion that good relations with Israel are a strategic asset, from whom they can obtain more benefit than they can from either America or Europe. And if the peace treaty will bring more ships carrying American grain and European coal, so much the better.

“We are saying to the whole world,” say the Egyptians, “that we are decent people, who stand by our commitments. There is nothing to fear from us.”

Cairo is disappointed in the Americans, very dissatisfied with the Turks, unsuccessful in bettering relations with the Saudis, never trusted the Europeans, and today believes that the mutual interests with countries that are close to your own borders, with their own significant capabilities, are the most important of all.

“Yerushalayim has never had a better opportunity for strengthening the basis for peace with Egypt,” say senior officials in the Foreign Ministry. El-Sisi wants to stabilize his government, and he has decided that the path to that goal is in Yerushalayim. If the price is lowering the level of hostility to Israel, it’s worth the price,” they are saying in Cairo.