Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cares more about maintaining good security ties with Egypt than with restaffing Israel’s embassy in Cairo, which has been empty since the end of 2016, National Security Council officials told a special session of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee last month.
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The NSC is under the auspices of the Prime Minister’s Office.
Ambassador David Govrin and his team left Cairo eight months ago. The embassy staff was recalled in December on security grounds, presumably based on warnings of an attack. The failure to return is partly due to Egyptian foot-dragging on adequate security measures for the Israelis.
The meeting of the foreign affairs subcommittee was convened after MK Ksenia Svetlova sent a letter in June to Avi Dichter and Robert Ilatov, the heads of the Knesset committee and the subcommittee, respectively. Svetlova outlined her concerns about the scaling back of relations between Egypt and Israel to contacts between a small number of army officers on both sides, and conversations by the prime minister’s envoy Isaac Molho with Egyptian officials.
“Many interpret the absence of an Israeli ambassador in Egypt as de facto giving up on having an embassy in Cairo,” Svatlova wrote. “The inability to promote business and diplomatic relations leaves that arena empty. ... In the absence of a resident ambassador, with the Foreign Ministry cut out, how can we reverse things?”
The meeting was attended by representatives of the National Security Council, the army’s planning division and the economy and foreign ministries. Ilatov, Svetlova and MK Oren Hazan also.
Three sources reported to Haaretz on the meeting, requesting anonymity. They said the Foreign Ministry representatives emphasized that the eight-month absence of embassy staff in Cairo made maintaining relations with Egypt extremely difficult. The Foreign Ministry’s contacts with the Egyptian government have been confined to conversations with the Egyptian ambassador in Tel Aviv and his team.
The Foreign Ministry people also said they feel a marked decrease in the extent of relations with Egypt, except as far as security is concerned. But Israeli-Egyptian relations must not rely solely on security, they stressed.
The Economy Ministry and army officers agreed with the Foreign Ministry people about the worrying state of relations, said the sources. They agreed the embassy needed to be reopened, and that civilian, economic and political cooperation should be reestablished.
The Economy Ministry representative noted that for Egypt, not having an Israeli embassy is a relief, especially as far as public opinion is concerned. “As far as they’re concerned, we shouldn’t come back,” he said, according to one of the sources.
The representatives of the army planning division said they know such narrow relations with Egypt aren’t a good thing. They themselves have been trying to broaden relations beyond the small group of officers on both sides, to include direct contacts with Egyptian navy and air force commanders, with no success so far.
The sources advised about the meeting said that for all the worries most of the participants evinced about the state of relations with Egypt and the embassy’s effective shutdown, the position presented by the National Security Council people was surprising: In the same breath with saying that relations with Egypt need broadening, they said Netanyahu feels political and civilian relations are below security ties in priority.
“The PMO people said that on the security front, relations with Egypt are good,” said a source in the know about the meeting. “They said that the Egyptian army and security mechanisms manage most of Egypt’s foreign affairs anyway, so reopening the embassy is important. But the relations with the Egyptian army are more important.”
The PMO declined to comment.
Since the attack on the Israeli embassy in Cairo in 2011, Israel has been scaling back its presence in Cairo at a creep – culminating in the embassy’s effective shutdown eight months ago.
Israel had talked with Egypt about moving the embassy for four years. Nothing came of it. At first the Israeli diplomats would spend three or four days a week in Cairo, working out of the ambassador’s house. In September 2015, given the Egyptian foot-dragging, Israel gave up and opened the embassy in a small building in the ambassador’s garden.
About a year later, even that small Israeli presence was folded up; in recent months Israeli and Egyptian security forces have been discussing security measures that would enable Govrin and his team to come back to Cairo. The talks have been fruitless so far. The Egyptians refuse to take steps that would enable the embassy to reopen.
Last March, Govrin slammed the way relations between the two countries have been handled since the peace treaty, and especially in recent years. Speaking to the INSS in Tel Aviv, he said that leaving relations confined to security issues could erode peace in the long run. Leadership on both sides has to stress the rewards of peace, he said, to both the Israeli and Egyptian people, to preclude opponents of peace from gaining traction against it and voiding the peace treaty. Govrin also slammed the leadership in Cairo, claiming that the military regime preferred to avoid political and civilian cooperation with Israel, for internal political reasons, even though such collaboration would benefit Egypt.