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What's behind Egypt and Israel's deepening rapprochement?

What's behind Egypt and Israel's deepening rapprochement?
5 min read
30 November, 2021
Analysis: A deal to permanently station troops along the shared border in the Sinai Peninsula reflects a trend of growing cooperation between Cairo and Tel Aviv.
2021 seems to have been Sisi's luckiest as Egypt’s restored regional status [Getty]

It could well appear that 2021 has been President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi’s lucky year, with Egypt seemingly having restored its regional status and reinforced ties with Israel, and in turn, the United States.

Most recently, a security protocol that formed part of the US-sponsored peace treaty signed between Egypt and Israel in 1979 was amended, for the first time in over four decades.

After what seemed to have been longstanding bilateral negotiations and coordination, both military-wise and on the political level, Israel has finally allowed Egypt to deploy permanent, fully-armed border guards in Rafah city in the restive North Sinai province along the northeastern border with Israel.

No further details on the number of forces to be deployed or their armoury were made public, though.

Based on the Camp David Accords that paved the way for the peace treaty, the Sinai Peninsula had been divided into three zones: A, B, and C.   

Only lightly-armed Egyptian police forces were permitted in Zone C, the nearest to the mutual border with Israel in Egypt’s Rafah city.

But occasionally, as Egyptian security forces were fighting an insurgency in North Sinai, Israel would allow Egypt to position troops across the border for limited periods approved beforehand.

Militancy contained?

Sisi has been fighting terrorism, mostly the local branch of the Islamic State (IS), since being appointed as the defence minister and army chief by late president Mohamed Morsi in August 2012, whom he overthrew in a military coup in July 2013.

Prior to the security deal with the Israelis in November this year, Sisi lifted, on 25 October, an almost three-decade-long nationwide state of emergency, including in Sinai, after describing the country as having turned into “an oasis of security and stability in the region".

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Analysts believe that the insurgency in North Sinai has been diminished or at least contained.

Four days before Sisi ended the state of emergency, the Israeli energy ministry announced in a statement reported by Reuters that it was considering building a natural gas pipeline in North Sinai to be operational within two years.

“Lifting the emergency state is a clear indicator that militancy in North Sinai has been controlled to a great extent, if not terminated,” Dr Samir Ghattas, a political analyst specialised in Israeli-Palestinian affairs, told The New Arab.

The 1979 peace treaty had previously limited Egyptian troop numbers in the Sinai Peninsula. [Getty]

Reinforced rapprochement?

Military cooperation between Egypt and Israel is not new, with Sisi admitting ongoing coordination in fighting militancy in North Sinai during an interview with '60 Minutes' broadcast on US-based CBS in January 2019.

“Sometimes [there is a need] to cross to the Israeli lands and that’s why we have a wide range of coordination with the Israelis,” Sisi told the show's host Scott Pelley.

The New York Times was the first to break the news on the "secret alliance" in 2018.

In fact, Sisi’s confession to Pelley may have been the reason why the Egyptian presidential office demanded that CBS kill the interview, a request that made news headlines around the world and was ultimately rejected by the American TV channel.

Ghattas views the new move of amending the peace treaty as an indication of deepening Egypt-Israel rapprochement.

“The significance of the new arrangement lies in opening the way for adjusting the security protocol of the once untouchable treaty, an indicator of further improvement in relations between Egypt and Israel,” noted Ghattas, also a writer and the head of the Middle East Forum for Strategic Studies.

“The amendment may also be viewed as a kind of courtesy to Egypt rather than a means to secure borders. The Egyptian army has a total of 45,000 armoured troops in North Sinai, which could have never taken place without Israel’s approval in the first place,” he argued.

In May this year, Egypt brokered a ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas faction, in what was seen by observers as a launching point for Egypt to re-establish its regional role, especially after several Arab countries had normalised relations with Israel, including influential Gulf countries like the UAE.

Three months later, Egypt’s intelligence chief Abbas Kamel met with newly-appointed Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett over high-level talks on Gaza and invited him to visit Egypt in the month to come.

The Kamel-Bennett talks paid off as, shortly afterwards, Israel lowered the travel warning level to Egypt’s South Sinai province.

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“Israel and Egypt are regional friends and rivals at the same time. And both countries seek a secure Sinai in order to contain the Palestinian Hamas faction [ruling the Gaza strip],” prominent political sociologist Dr Said Sadek told The New Arab.  

“There are important factors playing a role here like the reconstruction of Gaza, which requires further cooperation with both Israel and Qatar as regional allies,” Sadek added.

Shortly after Sisi met Bennett in the Red Sea Sharm El-Sheikh resort in September, the first-ever official EgyptAir airliner landed in Tel Aviv, one of four scheduled charter flights to travel to the Israeli capital every week.

Bennett’s visit was the first of an Israeli premier to Egypt since the January revolution of 2011 broke out, ousting president Hosni Mubarak, who had solid ties with Israel for three decades.

Egypt and Israel have technically been at peace since 1978, sharing strong diplomatic and economic relations.

But the Egyptian people have been at loggerheads with successive Egyptian regimes over normalisation, as many consider Israel a coloniser of Palestine since the 1948 war, an oppressor of the Palestinian people, and a former occupier of the Sinai Peninsula.

Thaer Mansour is a journalist based in Cairo, reporting for The New Arab on politics, culture and social affairs from the Egyptian capital