The suspension (or cancellation) of Egypt's natural gas agreement with Israel has prompted extensive fear about bilateral relations, to the point that some see it as the first step toward scrapping the Camp David Accords.
It is worth noting that disagreements about the gas deal first broke out several months ago between the state-owned Egyptian company supplying the gas and its Israeli partner. The Israeli side says Egypt has not upheld its commitment to supply the gas, causing significant financial damage, while the Egyptian Natural Gas Holding Company says it's the Israeli side that hasn't kept its pledge. These claims have been made in an ongoing arbitration hearing that began in October.
If not for the sensitive political and diplomatic context, the Egyptian decision could have been seen as a purely commercial one, similar to those made by companies in Turkey, China or India that work with Israeli companies. But the significance of the gas deal has been greatly inflated, far beyond its strictly financial significance, by the recognition that this is the flimsy basis on which Egyptian-Israeli trade relations are built, the awareness that the gas deal has turned into a rationale for harsh criticism against ousted President Hosni Mubarak, and at the same time by the effort of most Egyptian political movements to emphasize their commitment to all agreements signed with Israel.
We cannot assume that the gas deal was canceled without the advice and consent of the ruling Supreme Military Council, or think the council might not have realized the significance of this step and the extent to which it symbolizes the state of Egyptian-Israeli ties.
But Egyptian and Israeli efforts to contain the crisis by describing it as a commercial decision devoid of political context indicates that both sides fear for the welfare of bilateral ties, and are trying to prevent opponents of the peace accord, as well as terror groups that have sabotaged the gas pipeline, from gaining the power to determine the two countries' foreign policies. Both nations should continue to downplay the issue while refraining from populist criticism and pointing fingers before the commercial context of the decision has been fully clarified.
At a time when Egypt is struggling to shape its political and diplomatic future, it would be best not to give the natural gas deal the power to torch the peace agreement with Israel.
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