Peace between Egypt and Israel survived Gaza, but for how long?

Peace between Egypt and Israel survived Gaza, but for how long?
Egypt and al-Sisi's cost-benefit relationship with Israel has worn thin as Egyptians grow increasingly incensed by Israel's war on Gaza, writes Emad Moussa.
5 min read
12 Jun, 2024
Egypt's balancing act with Israel may have run its course, writes Emad Moussa [photo credit: Getty Images]

There is no strategic victory for Israel in Gaza without them pushing Gazans into the Egyptian Sinai, with the Egyptian military the last line of defence. 

Eight months of Israel's war on Gaza has pushed Egypt-Israel relations to the edge. Last month, Egypt mediated a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel. Hamas accepted, Israel rejected, and went on to invade Rafah anyway, despite Egypt's explicit opposition.

The Israeli 401st Brigade rolled into the border area, brandishing a supersized Israeli flag on an M113 armoured vehicle, their intentions clear to soldiers on both sides of the border. 

Egyptians saw a violation of the Camp David agreement and an Israeli betrayal. Egypt swiftly shut down the Rafah Crossing. What followed thereafter was a rare exchange of fire between Israeli and Egyptian troops that resulted in the death of an Egyptian soldier. 

Rising tension between Egypt and Israel has triggered speculation about whether the Camp David agreement will hold. Some even suggested that the situation could spiral out of control and lead to a direct confrontation between Cairo and Tel Aviv. 

Will Egypt and Israel eventually clash?

From a realist perspective, both parties would have much to lose if the four-decade-long agreement were compromised.

In signing the 1979 Camp David Accords, Egypt regained the Sinai Peninsula, which Israel occupied in 1967, in return for recognising the Jewish state. In return, Israel neutralised its most formidable opponent and afforded Israel an existential strategic partner. 

The following years saw the Israeli-Egyptian ties deepen, albeit slowly: most collaboration has been logistical. Cooperation has intensified under al-Sisi's regime and with it Egypt's complicity in the tightening of Israel's illegal blockade in Gaza.

The two parties agreed to change clauses in the Camp David agreement to allow the Egyptian army to station troops and heavy equipment in the previously disarmed Zone C of the Sinai Peninsula, on the Gaza/Israel border. 

Egypt under al-Sisi has warmed to Israel, and the expense of the Palestinians [photo credit: Getty Images]
Egypt under al-Sisi has warmed to Israel at the expense of their natural ally, the Palestinians [photo credit: Getty Images]

In 2020, Egypt began importing Israeli gas and hosted the East Mediterranean Gas Forum, of which Israel is a member. As of 2022, Egypt and Israel were set to boost their annual trade to $700 million, up from $300 million in 2021. 

The Egyptian government is yet to recall its ambassador in Tel Aviv and continues to assume the mediator role between Palestinians and Israelis, a role which serves to maintain Egypt's regional influence.

Perhaps for that same reason, Egyptian officials downplayed the death of their soldier on the border as an "incident" and would later engage in "shadow talks" with Israeli officials to prevent such "frictions" from happening again.

The dead soldier, described in hushed tones as a martyr, was paraded to his final resting point with little fanfare, even less media coverage, and certainly no military funeral. 

Egyptian military analyst Samir Ragheb is convinced that the border incident is unlikely to compromise Camp David and won't affect Egypt's mediatory role. Clutching at straws, the analyst even went on to say that "the Philadelphi Corridor, where the soldier was killed, is a no man's land," and therefore means it wasn't an act of aggression against Egypt's sovereignty per se. 

Unnatural bedfellows

However, there are signs that the Egyptian government may be reaching the end of their strategic tether. Pre-empting a worst-case scenario, Egypt has fired diplomatic warning shots at Israel, publicly and via back channels.

For their part, Egyptian military sources have stated that "Egypt will not accept being dragged into a war with Israel, and if this were to happen it will be Israel that would pay the highest price. It will send a shockwave across the region," the source added. 

Egypt has also found round-about ways to ensure the pulse of the Egyptian street has been heard in Tel Aviv. In late May, 100,000 Egyptian fans pledged allegiance to Palestine in a match against Tunisia. Egyptian security forces stood and watched on.

Similarly, since October 7, Egyptian media has been increasingly direct in their condemnation of Israel and championing the Palestinian cause. This is a notable shift from the years after the 2013 military coup where public displays of support for Palestine were censored and physical demonstrations on the streets shut down before a banner was raised. 

President Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981 because he signed the Camp David agreement with Menachem Begin. And while the agreement has ended hostilities between Egypt and Israel, which has evolved into security and economic collaboration, the average Egyptian is yet to buy into the Egypt-Israel matrix. 

It's a cold peace that most Egyptians view with either resentment or reluctant apathy. Today's generation of Egyptians are not less negative towards Israel than their parents and grandparents were.

Egyptians still see Israel as a settler-colonial entity and continue to name the dub Israelis as "those who shall not be named". They still chant for Palestine and fundraise for Palestinians. They still talk about when Israeli troops captured Egyptian soldiers in Sinai in 1967 and ran them over alive with tanks. 

The question remains: can Egypt balance its internal and external pressures as conflict looms on its border with Gaza? What happens if a second clash takes place, a third or a fourth? Can Egypt's realism and diehard diplomacy hold steady alongside an Israeli government that seems to have lost touch with reality?

Once inconceivable, the peace with Egypt and Israel materialised, but in a dynamic and unpredictable environment like the Middle East, this peace could also regress. Political realism does not have all the answers, especially when the ideological and psychological remain unaccounted for.

Dr Emad Moussa is a Palestinian-British researcher and writer specialising in the political psychology of intergroup and conflict dynamics, focusing on MENA with a special interest in Israel/Palestine. He has a background in human rights and journalism, and is currently a frequent contributor to multiple academic and media outlets, in addition to being a consultant for a US-based think tank.

Follow him on Twitter: @emadmoussa

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.