Netanyahu's Africa Trip Draws Israel and Egypt Closer, Too

The Egyptian foreign minister’s visit to Jerusalem marks cooperation on issues from the peace process with the Palestinians to Ethiopia’s controversial Nile dam project.

In visiting Israel, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry doesn’t only break the nine-year stretch of no Egyptian foreign minister coming to Israel. It’s also important that the foreign minister, not the intelligence minister, was sent by President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi.

Ex-President Hosni Mubarak would send Intelligence Minister Omar Suleiman or the latter’s aides to discuss military and intelligence cooperation and the peace process with the Palestinians, or to consult over policy vis-a-vis Hamas.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, July 10, 2016.
AP / Dan Balilty

The decision to send the foreign minister shows a new level of ties closer to political normalization. At the press conference, Shoukry, a seasoned diplomat who was Egypt’s ambassador to the United States from 2008 to 2012, focused on the peace process and reiterated that a two-state solution was attainable.

But it was what he didn’t say that was interesting. Shoukry didn’t offer a peace initiative, parameters for relaunching negotiations, or a timetable. He didn’t even present Egypt as an official mediator; he simply mentioned his June 29 meetings with the Palestinian leaders and Egypt’s intentions to complete the Ramallah talks with the Israeli side.

Sissi has apparently decided to open a public political channel with Israel that could eventually result in a presidential invitation to the prime minister to visit Cairo. Egypt and Israel have common interests only some of which are security related. Security and intelligence cooperation doesn’t require discussions at the foreign-minister level.

Israel has already agreed for Egypt to break the Camp David Accords by bringing ground troops and air support into Sinai. Israel has also agreed to Egypt’s transfer of sovereignty over the Sanafir and Tiran islands to the Saudis, with the kingdom pledging to uphold an agreement to which it’s not a signatory. All these agreements were concluded by emissaries in secret talks with no fanfare.

An Egyptian farmer squats on cracked soil of a farm previously irrigated by the Nile river, June 5, 2013.
Reuters

But for Egypt there are key issues that require it to go public with Israel. One is its concern about the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which Ethiopia is building on the Nile. The first part of the dam is expected to be completed next year, and Egypt says it stands to lose between 11 billion and 19 billion cubic meters of water annually.

That will reduce Egypt’s electricity output by some 25 to 40 percent. The dam is considered such a threat that deposed President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood had threatened to destroy it.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) walks alongside Rwandan President Paul Kagame as he inspects a guard of honor upon arriving at the airport in Kigali, Rwanda, July 6, 2016.
Stringer, Reuters

Egypt believes, quite rightly, that Israel has leverage in Ethiopia, and if it can’t prevent the building of the dam, it can at least persuade Ethiopia to coordinate water-sharing with Cairo so Egypt’s economy doesn’t suffer.

That might be the reason for the timing of Shoukry’s visit, right after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s return from Africa, to hear whether he had any good news for the Egyptians. Egypt needs this information to prepare for the conference of Nile Valley foreign ministers on Thursday in Uganda. Egypt also needs Israel’s support to counter any American intention to take the international peacekeepers out of Sinai, a step Egypt regards as surrendering to terror.

Jialiang Gao

Cairo is also very interested in the renewed ties between Turkey and Israel, mainly in the clause that lets Turkey be a major supplier of consumer goods and construction materials to Gaza. Turkey’s entrance puts Egypt in an uncomfortable position at best, in which it, with Israel, continues to impose a formal closure on Gaza while Turkey becomes an ally of Hamas, this time with an Israeli “permit.”

To change this equation, Egypt will have to coordinate its civilian policy on Gaza with Israel and promote a reconciliation agreement soon between Hamas and Fatah so it can open the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt.

These are all weighty matters that a lightning visit to Israel by an Egyptian foreign minister can’t resolve. But the widening of the Israeli-Egyptian map of political interests, with an economic bonus in the background in the realm of natural gas, is a key development. It requires flexible and wise Israeli policy, with confidence-building measures toward the Palestinians that, this time, have strategic value in ties with Egypt and other Arab countries.