Israel's ambassador in Cairo, David Govrin, has criticized the way in which ties between Egypt and Israel have been handled since the two countries signed a peace agreement in 1979 and particularly in recent years. In an unusual speech at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, Govrin said the ties between the countries were predominantly military and that if this continues, over the long term, it could erode the peace between the countries.
"Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu and Egyptian President [Abdel Fattah] al-Sissi have close ties that are based on trust and mutual respect. This is welcome and contributes greatly to ties between the countries," the ambassador said. "But the relations between Israel and Egypt rely to too great an extent on the military leg. If peace is to forge deep roots, it needs to stand on two feet, the military and the civilian-economic. It is only the combination of the two that will ensure long-term cooperation between the countries."
The leaderships in the two countries need to present the fruits of peace to the Israeli and Egyptian people, Govrin said, so that opponents of peace would not be able to cast doubt over the necessity of the peace agreement, even demanding that it be abrogated. Govrin was critical of the government in Cairo, saying that the Egyptian government prefers not to pursue civilian and economic cooperation with Israel for domestic political reasons, even though such ties would be beneficial to Egypt.
Referring to the wave of anti-regime protests that broke out in the Arab world in 2010, as well as the storming of the Israeli embassy by a crowd in Cairo in 2011, Govrin said: "Civilian cooperation between Israel and Egypt has shrunk considerably in recent years, both because of the Arab Spring and because of the takeover of the embassy in Cairo, which has made it difficult for Israeli representatives to work in the country as they had in the past."
Govrin said the Egyptian view of peace is completely different from Israel's, claiming that the significance of peace from the Egyptian perspective is an end to war between the two countries but not normal relations. "For decades, the Egyptian government has refrained from encouraging ties with Israel," he said. "No Egyptian president other than [Anwar] Sadat has visited Israel. [President Hosni] Mubarak only visited for the funeral of [Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin."
There are major difficulties, Govrin said, in promoting cultural relations with Egypt. Several months ago, he recounted, he attended a performance at Egypt's national theater, which prompted attacks in the Egyptian media against the theater's director for not stopping the performance and ejecting the ambassador from the hall. "Forty years after Sadat's visit to Israel, a visit by the Israeli ambassador to a performance in Egypt still prompts criticism," Govrin noted.
But the ambassador also made mention of several initial changes for the better in Israeli-Egyptian relations. In recent years, for example, he said there had been a certain change in the extent to which the bilateral ties are dependent on progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, particularly among young people.
"The young generation has not experienced war with Israel and is exposed to modern media outlets," the ambassador told his Tel Aviv audience. "In addition, the Arab Spring changed the national agenda in Egypt and pushed the Palestinian issue to the sidelines."
Govrin also noted a change when it comes to the Egyptian media's attitude toward Israel. In recent years, he said, press coverage in Egypt about Israel has been more to the point. "[The number of] poisonously critical articles and anti-Semitic cartoons has declined compared to the 1990s. If this continues, it could be a positive influence on the attitude toward Israel," he said.
Govrin said he had recently also even witnessed initial signs of change when it comes to education towards peace in Egypt, after years in which demonization of Israel had been an element of official Egyptian policy.
For his part, Egypt's ambassador in Tel Aviv, Hazem Khairat, who spoke after Govrin, said the peace between the two countries is stable and that both are committed to maintaining it both in words and deeds. All of the channels of the ties between the countries are open and functioning, Khairat said, and close cooperation helps maintain stability and fight terrorism. Egypt is interested in promoting economic relations with Israel and in reconvening the tripartite U.S.-Egyptian-Israeli committee that deals with the subject.
The Egyptian ambassador added that Egypt is prepared to continue in its traditional role in the peace process and to assist Israel and the Palestinians to reach a compromise. President Sissi is still of the belief that there is an opportunity to advance peace in the region, particularly in conjunction with the new Trump administration, Khairat said, adding that a two-state solution is the only way to move ahead towards peace. American involvement is necessary, he said, to help the parties come to an agreement and to put it into practice.
Ambassador Khairat was also critical of Israel, however, saying that a Palestinian state cannot exist with the continued expansion of Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Israel's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Emmanuel Nahshon, said in response to Govrin's comments: "Israel attaches supreme importance to its relations with Egypt and is committed to advancing them at every level."