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Warming up

Viewpoints, August 2016
Ambassador Zvi Mazel

Ambassador Zvi Mazel

Interview

IPDF: What was the significance of Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Hassan Shoukry visit to Israel, July 10?

ZM: The visit can be seen as yet is another step by President Abdel Fattah Sisi in warming up relations with Israel. Last September he allowed the reopening of the Israel Embassy in Cairo (closed since the 2012 ransacking of the building by rioters) which discreetly resumed operations – not in downtown Cairo as before but out of the ambassador’s residence in the southern suburb of Maadi. In January he sent back his ambassador to Israel, who had been recalled four years ago by deposed President Mohamed Morsi in response to the IDF’s Pillar of Defense operation against terror attacks from Gaza.

Shoukry ‘s visit followed Sisi’s call in May to Israel and the Palestinians to engage in peace talks, stressing that Egypt is ready to facilitate such talks. Egypt needs Israel’s help to resuscitate its ailing economy. Unfortunately, the deep-rooted hostility of the old elites, the Muslim establishment on the one hand and the nationalistic intellectuals on the other, are still very influential. Both strenuously oppose normalization with Israel. Sisi needs their support and has to proceed slowly with his Israeli agenda so as not to push them into active opposition.

This is why he has initiated a series of cautious gestures against the background of Egypt’s battle against Islamic terrorism in Northern Sinai and the good security cooperation between the two countries that developed in the last two years.

During his visit Shoukry spoke mainly about the “conflict” and the importance of advancing peace negotiations. It may also have been an opportunity for Sisi to demonstrate that Egypt is back in the Middle East diplomatic arena after a long absence though many believe that the visit was only intended to further bilateral relations between the two states.

PM Netanyahu with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry in Jerusalem

PM Netanyahu with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry in Jerusalem

IPDF: Could unprecedented Egyptian and Arab support help unravel the deadlocked Israeli-Palestinian peace talks?

ZM: It’s true that some Israeli officials and media outlets suggest that the discreet rapprochement between Israel and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states might facilitate negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. All those countries, together with Egypt, dubbed pragmatic Arabs countries, are facing the same threat: Islamic terrorism and Iranian subversion.

However, so far open cooperation has not surfaced between the Gulf countries and Israel. It’s hard to believe that Saudi Arabia, guardian of the two holy places of Islam, Mecca and Medina, and adhering to Wahhabism, a very extremist branch of Islam, would change its deep anti-Israel ideological beliefs. So far we have not seen any sign that something like that is happening.

The Saudi initiative which became the Arab initiative for peace is based on the 1949 cease-fire lines and the right of return to Arab refugees and as such it is a nonstarter. It seems that the Arab world is not ready to recognize the legitimacy of Israel and is not ready to waive its pledge to ensure the refugees’ return.

IPDF: The Cairo daily Al Ahram reports that there is speculation that a meeting between Sisi and Prime Minister Netanyahu could take place before the end of the year, is this is likely?

ZM: So far Egypt has not announced any peace initiative or presented practical suggestions for such a meeting. Sisi has offered his help to both sides and mentioned the French initiative which has been rejected by Israel. Sisi may well try to put pressure on Netanyahu and on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, but it’s difficult to see a fundamental change in the Palestinian camp while they continue to push forward with internationalizing the issue and getting support from many countries, including the EU.

IPDF: How have ties with Egypt changed since you were ambassador there 1996 to 2001?

ZM: Unfortunately, they have not changed a lot. The cold peace is still there and   normalization between the two peoples continues to be blocked by the elites as mentioned above. The close security relations between the two countries at present might lead progressively to a change. This is probably what the Egyptian president is trying to achieve by tackling the Palestinian issue first.

Former Ambassador to Egypt Zvi Mazel is a fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.