Is­rael-Egypt ties have been put to the test


EGYPT AND Is­rael have spent more years as neigh­bour­ing coun­tries at peace than at war. For most of the past four decades, there has been an Egyp­tian em­bassy in Tel Aviv and a cor­re­spond­ing Is­raeli mis­sion in Cairo.

This is nor­mal­ity to those born or who have come of age in the years since 1978. But it is easy to for­get how mo­men­tous a de­ci­sion it was for Pres­i­dent Anwar Sa­dat to fly to Is­rael and — in a 60-minute speech at the Knes­set —in­vite Is­raelis to live along­side their Arab neigh­bours in “full se­cu­rity and safety”.

He was the first Arab leader to ut­ter those words, barely five years since thou­sands had been killed fight­ing in the Yom Kip­pur War. The deal was a ma­jor mo­tive be­hind Sa­dat’s as­sas­si­na­tion — and yet it sur­vives.

It was se­verely tested at the be­gin­ning of this decade when, with the Arab Spring in full bloom, Sa­dat’s suc­ces­sor Hosni Mubarak was top­pled. For a brief pe­riod in 2011, Egyp­tian pub­lic dis­course was freed — and a lot of it was hos­tile to Is­rael.

In Au­gust, three Egyp­tian sol­diers were killed by Is­raeli troops as they crossed the border in pur­suit of mil­i­tants be­lieved to be re­spon­si­ble for a se­ries of co­or­di­nated ter­ror­ist at­tacks in south­ern Is­rael.

Then, in Septem­ber, Is­raeli diplo­mats had to be air­lifted out of the Cairo em­bassy af­ter pro­test­ers armed with sledge­ham­mers and bat­ter­ing rams broke into the build­ing and tore down the Is­raeli flag. At one stage there was only one door sep­a­rat­ing em­bassy staff from the an­gry mob out­side.

Re­la­tions have im­proved markedly since then. Be­cause this is not a con­ven­tional re­la­tion­ship, we do not see Is­rael and Egypt do the things most coun­tries do when they want to demon­strate how much they get along. We are not soon likely, for ex­am­ple, to see Egyp­tian flags line the streets of west­ern Jerusalem in prepa­ra­tion for a visit by Egyp­tian Pres­i­dent Ab­del Fat­tah el-Sisi, just as they did be­fore Sa­dat’s Knes­set ap­pear­ance.

But the two do co­op­er­ate ex­ten­sively be­hind the scenes. Egyp­tian in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cers are the in­ter­locu­tors of choice for re­solv­ing dis­putes be­tween the var­i­ous Pales­tinian fac­tions, while Is­raeli mil­i­tary ex­per­tise has been a silent, cru­cial part­ner in the Egyp­tian gov­ern­ment’s bat­tle against Is­lamist forces in north­ern Si­nai.

And Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu vis­ited Egypt for talks as re­cently as this spring, al­though it was kept se­cret for many months.

A trans­ac­tional re­la­tion­ship it might still be, but both sides have good rea­son to keep it afloat.

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