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Bennett and Sissi Understand That They Can Scratch Each Other's Back

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi in Sharm el-Sheikh
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi in Sharm el-Sheikh, on MondayCredit: HANDOUT/ REUTERS
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The meeting between Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi in Sharm el-Sheikh on Monday was reportedly a good one. Bennett and Sissi met for about an hour, according to plan. The meeting lasted for three hours. Israeli media outlets reported at length that the Egyptians had made sure to give the meeting as public and official an air as possible.

The warm reception will of course come at a cost. The Egyptian delegation came to the meeting with a long wish list for Israel – assistance in improving ties with the United States, mediation in the crisis between Egypt and Ethiopia over the dam on the Nile River, strengthening economic ties between Jerusalem and Cairo, among other things. Israel wants the assistance of the Egyptian president and his intelligence officials to achieve a relatively long-term agreement with the Gaza Strip.

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Expectations, on both sides, will only be partially met. A series of complicated problems came up during the conversation, which in some cases will require good will from third parties as well.

According to diplomatic and security officials in Israel, the most urgent question for the Egyptians involves ties with Washington. When Sissi forcibly took power in Cairo in the summer of 2013, he got into hot water with the Obama administration. The Egyptian generals had it better, like quite a few dictators in the neighborhood, from the four-year golden age of President Donald Trump.

But with the return to power of the Democratic Party and Joe Biden in the White House, Washington once again turned a cold shoulder to Cairo, especially due to the regime’s methodical human rights violations. For Sissi, Bennett (as for his predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu) is an ideal reference in Washington. Egyptian action in the region – mediation in Gaza, talk of a peace initiative on the Israeli-Palestinian channel – could be well received by the Americans.

Sissi even presented at the beginning of the week a new national strategy for protecting human rights in Egypt, as if he had only just been made aware, slightly late, of a few problems in the realm of freedom of expression and freedom for political parties in his country.

But these gestures apparently come too late from the Americans’ point of view. On Tuesday, the website Politico reported that the government will freeze 10 percent of its annual military aid to Egypt in light of human rights concerns. According to Politico, the decision is actually a compromise between the progressive and moderate wings of the Democratic Party, after the original intention had been to slash $300 million from the aid.

It remains to be seen whether Egyptian disappointment will affect the good will Sissi and his people will show in efforts toward an agreement with Gaza.

Egypt, like Jordan, expects Israel to expand its economic dealings with it. Israel has responded positively, but says that more commerce between the countries has to have a more public face.

Israel’s veteran Arab partners can go in the direction of its new friends, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, and stop keeping its relationship in the shadows. Israel might also import large quantities of inexpensive goods, like textiles, that it now buys from Turkey. The interests of strategic allies should come before those of adversaries. Another matter, which is likely to be discussed in secret, is connected with military action against Al-Qaida in Sinai. According to foreign sources, Israel has been conducting drone attacks in Sinai for years now, to help the Egyptians fight Islamic militancy.

From Israel’s point of view, Gaza is the thorniest problem. A pessimistic message emerged from Bennett’s inner circle last week, that Hamas’ insistence on rekindling the Gaza border could soon result in another military operation there. The more aggressive line is being led by the head of the Shin Bet security service, Nadav Argaman, whose term in office will end in less than a month. Argaman ended Operation Guardian of the Walls in May with something of a sense of having missed out; he believed that Israel could have struck Hamas harder.

The position of the army is complex. On the one hand, Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi marketed the operation as a victory by the Israel Defense Forces. Embarking on another operation so soon will contradict his previous statements. On the other hand, the army is also frustrated with the adversarial stand of the Gazan Hamas leader, Yahya Sinwar.

Nadav Argeman and Aviv Kochavi, 2019Credit: Moti Milrod

Deceptive public mood

The politicians are also uncertain. “Before the government approves another operation in the Strip, it has to answer two urgent questions,” a senior official said yesterday. “What is the exit strategy and how long might it take?”

The recent shooting death of army sharpshooter Barel Hadaria Shmueli by a Palestinian at the Gaza border fence brought another problem to the surface. Although the public mood tends toward aggressive action against Hamas, Israelis have lost some of their tolerance for the loss of soldiers’ lives.

If the government approves a ground operation that means the deaths of soldiers, it could discover that public support for it will dissipate. There are also political sensitivities. How will the United Arab List, and even Meretz, respond to another operation in the Gaza Strip that might, as in the past, involve the death by mistake of Palestinian civilians?

Two obstacles stand in the way of a stable cease-fire between Hamas and Israel. The first is in the immediate future and the second is farther down the road. The first obstacle involves the missing third of the monthly money from Qatar, amounting to $10 million. No alternative has been found yet to transfer the last third of the money, which so far has been delivered in suitcases of cash, as payment of the salaries of Hamas officials.

As officials in the Foreign Ministry warned, the Palestinian banks will not cooperate with the plan because the transfer of money through them to Hamas, which the United States has defined as a terrorist organization, will immediately disqualify them from any contact with the American banking system.

In the long term, there is still the problem of the missing and captive Israelis. Israel has conditioned any significant reconstruction of the Gaza Strip, which is very urgent for Hamas, on the return of the two Israeli civilians and the remains of its soldiers held in the Strip, but the gaps between the sides are great. Developments in Israel, Jerusalem and the West Bank will also impact the situation in Gaza.

As long as the two remaining escaped prisoners remain at large, among the six who escaped from Gilboa Prison more than a week ago, the potential for an incident involving them could lead to renewed escalation and rocket fire from Gaza. As it is, there has been an increase in attempted terror attacks in the West Bank and Jerusalem recently.

Still awhile for Iran

A report in Tuesday’s New York Times sparked a somewhat exaggerated alarm and even some misleading commentary in Israel. The newspaper quoted a new report by the International Science and Security Institute that Iran is less than a month from accumulating enough enriched uranium for one nuclear bomb. According to the institute, the Iranians could reach a sufficient amount for a second bomb within two months and for a third bomb in less than five months.

But the institute’s experts are talking about the accumulation of fissionable material and not the process required for a nuclear warhead to be attached to a ballistic missile. According to various assessments in the West, a period of a few months to two years will be required to complete the process. That is a significant difference, which reflects a fairly long road ahead. Some of the reports did not mention this.

And yet, when Netanyahu spoke at the United Nations – for example in his famous speech before the General Assembly in 2012, in which he showed a drawing of a bomb that looked like something out of a cartoon – he marked a red line around sufficient enrichment for one bomb, one stage before the manufacture of a nuclear warhead. This red line, according to the institute’s experts, could be crossed soon if the Iranian leadership wants to do so.

Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking at the UN, 2012Credit: Don Emmert/AFP

Trump and Netanyahu have a great deal of responsibility for this possible woeful outcome. In 2018, the prime minister convinced the U.S. president to withdraw from the nuclear agreement signed in 2015 and to exert maximum pressure on Iran by means of heavy sanctions. These actions did not achieve the hoped-for result and in the end it turned out they only pushed the regime into going back to enrichment and moving its nuclear project ahead.

In recent talks between the United States and Israel, the question came up again of threatening Iran militarily if it continues to enrich uranium and advance its nuclear plans. On the one hand, Israel wants the United States to put the military option back on the table, even if its use does not seem realistic at present. On the other, if the United States threatens and Iran goes back to the original agreement, it’s the same agreement to which the current administration, like its predecessor, objects.

As long as Washington has not made its position clear, this catch can cause confusion between the parties. Israel is not the only country that expects a harsher American position. Similar voices are being heard from Britain as well.

As opposed to the Netanyahu government, the Bennett-Lapid government doesn’t make public its disagreements with the Biden administration over Iran. But when it comes to U.S. foreign policy, the well-known statement by Theodore Roosevelt is often stated: “Walk softly and carry a big stick.” From Israel’s perspective, at the moment, in light of Iranian progress, the United States is walking quite softly and not yet carrying a big enough stick.

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