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An Egyptian in Jerusalem

On Sunday Egypt’s Foreign Minister, Sameh Shoukry, turned up in Jerusalem to meet Prime Minister Netanyahu. This was the most senior Egyptian to visit the country in nine years. What’s the significance of this trip?

Six observations

      1.Open and in public

An Israeli analyst recently described the complex interdependent relationships in this region taking place on a double-decker bus. There is a labyrinth of hidden diplomacy and conversations going on the lower deck, but we only ever see the ‘public’ upper deck. This was an example of the lower deck coming upstairs for a very deliberate photo-op. In fact, this meeting went beyond protocol; FM Shoukry was received to the level of a Head of State. He enjoyed a two-hour work meeting with Netanyahu in his office and they also subsequently had the pleasure of each other’s company at a private dinner at the PM’s residence. One photo even caught them with the Euro Final on in the background. This caused him some ridicule and criticism with his domestic Egyptian audience, but the salient and important message for the Egyptian public must be that after 37 years of cold peace its time to get used to it already!

      2. Cooperation is real

For several years, there have been understandings reached between Israel and Egypt, both over security coordination in Egypt controlled Sinai and their relations towards Hamas in Gaza. Egypt has regularly made modifications to the security annex of their 1979 peace treaty in full accordance with Israel, to allow heavy military hardware into the demilitarized zone in the Sinai Peninsula. This has allowed the Egyptian military to step up its campaign against the menacing ISIS affiliate Wilayat Sinai. In fact, today it was revealed that Israeli drones have been assisting their efforts. Israeli-Egyptian Coordination has also been apparent over Gaza.  Even during Operation Protective Edge in 2014 Israel was prepared for Egypt to set the diplomatic agenda. Israel accepted every Egyptian proposal to a ceasefire, including the final agreement brokered by Egypt.

      3. You are not alone

The current joke doing the rounds in Jerusalem; the PMO and its team enjoy mentioning that Israel, much to the disappointment of its enemies, is not as isolated as they claim. Indeed, they are on a roll. Following the Turkey deal and last week’s African adventure as well as ongoing warming of ties with other global players India, China, Japan, South Korea.  Whilst the UK and US are pulverised by domestic politics, the world is still revolving.

      4. The regional dynamic and opportunity

In an interrelated, multifaceted region in flux, an inherent logic is beginning to take form. The so called  Sunni pragmatic bloc has plenty in common with Israel and all sides can benefit from eventually going public. It is understood in Israel that a visit of this nature would not happen without the approval of the Saudi leadership who currently bankroll and support the Egyptian economy. The tantalising dream of normalisation with the Arab world is anchored in the strength of strategic relations with both the Egyptian and Jordanians, but would include Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, the Gulf States, and others. Israel and her Sunni friends have shared assessments of shared concerns that have led to a confluence of interests. The dual threats of Iran and her Shia crescent as well as extremist Sunni global Jihadists are vividly understood.

      5. The price

The traditional price for all this is of course reconciliation with the Palestinians, most commonly framed in the Arab Peace Initiative. Although Israel has concerns over some aspects of the API’s Terms of Reference, the latest thinking is moving away from a dynamic where Israel only gets rewards after it has signed a final deal with the Palestinians. Perhaps, there are gradual steps to normalisation or even a parallel track, which can further entice a sceptical Israeli public to support concessions. Due to the changing nature of the region, through the new alliances and reliances, Israel’s hand has been further strengthened and the Palestinian issue has mutually been pushed down the order of priorities, but it can’t be ignored.

      6. The next steps

Netanyahu is very keen to be invited to Cairo in order to continue the incremental warming of bilateral ties. He’d be even happier if under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s auspice he were to persuade a Palestinian leader to come too and reinvigorate negotiations towards a two-state solution that would begin to rebuild trust and eventually lead to an accommodation of Palestinian and Israeli aspirations. Israel is far warier of an imposed solution, such as the French initiative, or a sting in the tail of the Obama regime. For Israel and Egypt, a regional-based realignment taking in realpolitik concerns of the stakeholders, not the whim of outsiders, could be a better bet for regional stability and prosperity.

Richard Pater is Director of BICOM Israel