Israeli Drone Strikes in Sinai Point to Close Defense Cooperation With Egypt

Egypt sees Israel as a vital strategic partner in the region. Even if President Sissi pays lip service to the Palestinian issue, his top priority is fighting ISIS.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry in Jerusalem on July 10, 2016.
Ronen Zvulun, Reuters

The report by Bloomberg news Monday, according to which a former senior Israeli official said that Israel has conducted numerous drone attacks on militants in Sinai with Egypt’s blessing, ended the lengthy radio silence observed by both countries. Residents of northern Sinai had been reporting strikes against terror groups with unmanned aerial vehicles, whose use Egypt isn’t particularly known for, for some time. The Associated Press reported an Israeli aerial attack on a terror cell in the peninsula in 2013, but as in other cases neither Jerusalem nor Cairo commented on the report.

If the Bloomberg story, whose Israeli source was speaking on condition of anonymity, is correct, it could help explain the deepening relationship between the two counties in the past two years, whose zenith so far was Sunday’s visit to Israel by Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry. It’s no coincidence that both the Israel Defense Forces’ deputy chief of staff and the Israeli ambassador to Cairo recently described the relationship and strategic cooperation between the two countries as closer than ever.

In the light of Egypt’s enormous economic difficulties and the threat of another revolution by the Muslim Brotherhood, the threat posed by the Islamic State movement is high on Cairo’s agenda. The activities of the organization’s branch in Sinai, the Wilayat Sinai, has confounded the Egyptian government and dealt a serious blow to tourism in the area. In order for Egypt to deploy forces and take other military measures in Sinai, Israel must approve exceptions to the security appendix of the Camp David Accords. Cairo also needs defense and intelligence cooperation with Israel in the peninsula. According to the Bloomberg report, it is being assisted by Israel’s air capabilities, alongside its own fighter jets and helicopters that it has deployed in Sinai with Israeli permission.

Since the beginning of the year, the Egyptian security forces have shown clear improvement in dealing with the terror threat in Sinai. Even if Cairo’s optimism is exaggerated, it’s clear that the Islamic State and other Islamic organizations are in relative retreat and are having a harder time carrying out serious attacks, like the blowing up of the Russian plane that took off from Sharm el-Sheikh last October, or the series of successful attacks it launched on Egyptian military bases in Sinai in 2014 and 2015. One can assume that these circumstances are what led Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi to approve the visit of his foreign minister to Israel, the first by an Egyptian foreign minister in nine years, subsequent to a long series of bilateral meetings and telephone calls among various levels of diplomatic and security officials that have been taking place without being publicly reported.

The Netanyahu government won the Egyptian generals’ favor in the summer of 2013, when it helped persuade the Obama administration not to officially declare what was clear to everyone — that former President Mohamed Morsi had been overthrown in a military coup, which ostensibly obligated the halting of U.S. financial aid to Egypt. Since then, Egypt perceives Israel as a vital strategic partner in the region, even if Egypt still sees itself as obligated to pay lip service to the Palestinian problem by issuing calls for renewing direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, as it did Sunday, during Shoukry’s visit.

But it seems that the chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, MK Avi Dichter (Likud), was correct in his claim Monday that Egypt couldn’t care less about peace talks with the Palestinians. There is a long line of other issues Cairo is more preoccupied with, ranging from the reconciliation between Israel and Turkey through the dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia over the water of the Nile River to the possible cooperation with Israel in the energy realm. One must concede that even as the status of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has eroded in the eyes of the U.S. administration and the countries of Western Europe because of the stalemate with the Palestinians, Netanyahu in recent years has managed to advance strategic relationships in other regions, from East Asia to Eastern Europe and Africa, and perhaps even more importantly, with several of the Sunni regimes in Arab countries.

One major threat hovers over the Israeli-Egyptian romance: the situation in the Gaza Strip. Egypt’s clear disgust with Hamas has led to a tightening of the Gaza blockade since Morsi was deposed. Cairo scuttled efforts to somewhat improve the Gaza economy before the Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014, interceded rather clumsily between the two sides during the war and after the war dismissed suggestions to ease the siege and open the Rafah crossing to Sinai.

While the Israeli security establishment views the deteriorating living conditions in Gaza as a ticking bomb liable to cause another violent outburst, Egypt isn’t rushing to take action. It’s not as if the Israeli leadership is going out of its way to relieve the situation either, but even if the proposal to build an artificial island off Gaza to serve as a port is discussed further, it’s hard to see Egypt agreeing to this and it would be almost impossible to advance such a plan without Egypt’s agreement.