“A former senior Israeli official,” Bloomberg reports, “said his country has conducted numerous drone attacks on militants in Sinai in recent years with Egypt’s blessing. He spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential military activity.”
“Militants in Sinai” refers primarily to ISIS, which has a branch there called Sinai Province. The Sinai Peninsula is a part of Egypt that Israel, after wresting it from Egypt in the 1967 Six Day War, handed back as part of the 1981 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty.
In light of the fact that, since Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took power in 2013, Israel and Egypt have maintained tight security cooperation, such Israeli drone strikes come as no surprise. ISIS in Sinai has mounted dozens of attacks on Egyptian security personnel there, and threatens Israel as well.
Sisi, who in 2013 overthrew Egypt’s short-lived Muslim Brotherhood government, has also moved aggressively against a Brotherhood offshoot, Hamas, in Gaza—again with Israeli cooperation.
But with a visit to Israel this week by Egyptian foreign minister Sameh Shoukry, the Israeli-Egyptian relationship appears to have taken an important step beyond the security sphere. It was the first visit to Israel by an Egyptian foreign minister in nine years. By all accounts, Shoukry’s talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were held in a good atmosphere and went well.
Aside from discussing and further enhancing the security cooperation—which Israel’s deputy chief of staff told Bloomberg is at a “level…we’ve never experienced before”—what’s in it for the two sides?
For Netanyahu, it has to do with fending off initiatives, or possible initiatives, to tackle the Palestinian issue without Israel’s consent and with a likely pro-Palestinian bias.
One of those initiatives comes from France, which in June held an international conference on the Palestinian issue that Israel strongly opposed, and which neither Israeli nor Palestinian representatives attended.
Considering France’s longstanding pro-Palestinian bias, and President François Hollande’s Socialist government’s electoral dependence on France’s Muslim population, Israel sees France’s involvement as unwelcome and likely to lead to pro-Palestinian resolutions, potentially in the UN Security Council, and pressure on Israel.
And the other possible push to solve the Palestinian problem could, it is believed, come from President Barack Obama, especially in the last two months of his tenure.
Obama, too, is seen in Israel as partial to the Palestinians and also as having scores to settle with Netanyahu, particularly over his speech to Congress denouncing Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran.
Israeli media are now rife with rumors of a possible upcoming meeting on the Palestinian issue between Netanyahu and Sisi in Egypt, or one between Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas that would be hosted by Sisi in Egypt.
Netanyahu has long talked of a “regional peace initiative” involving Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Sunni Arab states that have tacit ties with Israel. With Egypt one of those states now putting the ties out in the open, hopes of such a scenario—one that would upend possible moves by Paris or Washington—have grown.
As for Egypt, along with Israel’s security assistance and the potential prestige of assuming the role of regional peace facilitator, its eyes are on Israel’s natural gas fields in the Mediterranean and the lifeline they represent.
Although Egypt has discovered a natural gas field of its own, the largest in the Mediterranean, it needs time to develop it and meanwhile is suffering a severe energy crunch. Israel, for now, can supply what Egypt needs, and the two countries are negotiating a multibillion-dollar energy contract.
With Israel recently having signed a reconciliation agreement with Turkey, with Saudi Arabia reportedly having helped arrange the Egyptian foreign minister’s visit, and with Israeli-Egyptian ties blooming, the larger picture that emerges is one where Israel’s power in both the security and economic spheres is growing too great for regional countries to forgo the benefits.
Having common foes like Iran and ISIS has something to do with it; so does the Obama administration’s empowerment of Iran and relative disinterest in traditional American allies. It doesn’t necessarily mean Israeli-Palestinian peace is about to emerge, or that Arab states and their populations are about to warmly accept Israel. Caution is in order.
Still, the region is changing before our eyes in ways that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago, and that warrant —cautious—Israeli optimism.