Year Ender: Egypt and Israel, a souring relationship?

During his December visit to Cairo, US Middle East Envoy George Mitchell said that his country was pressing Palestinians and Israelis to sign a general framework agreement, seen by many Palestinians as a step away from a final peace accord.

The peace process stalled following a round of direct talks in Washington that had raised hopes of the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. Mitchell’s presence in the region also follows Washington’s admission of its failure to secure an Israeli settlement freeze, which effectively killed prospects for continued talks.

The failure is seen by some pundits as a reason for the apparent souring of relations between Egypt and Israel, publicly at least. In an interview with Al-Masry Al-Youm on Sunday, Irrigation Minister Mohamed Nasr Eddin Allam dismissed the possibility that Egypt would supply Israel with Nile water amid fears regarding Israeli investment in upstream Nile Basin countries, which has served to raise tensions over Egypt’s historic right to Nile water.

More publicly, Egypt recently announced the discovery of an Israeli spy ring allegedly uncovered over the summer. “The timing of the announcement of the spy ring had a lot to do with current tensions in Egypt-Israel relations,” Emad Gad, political analyst at the semi-official Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic studies, said. “There is also a large element of trying to gain popularity among Egyptians by adopting such a public stance.”

The front pages of most Egyptian newspapers have been dominated by news of the Egyptian Kung Fu instructor who was recruited by Israeli intelligence agency Mossad in 2007 in return for US$7500.  Since the network was unraveled, many other stories of espionage have emerged in the local media.

Most recently, Egyptian authorities introduced a new suspect, known to the Israelis as “The Master,” who has been reportedly working for the Mossad for 20 years and is said to have recruited hundreds of Egyptians to spy for Israel.

The suspect, Tarek Abdel Razek Eissa, is alleged to have attempted to recruit a chief editor at a major pro-Syrian Lebanese newspaper. Abdel Razek also confessed to authorities that Israel had been behind the mass internet outage in 2008, said at the time to have been caused by damaged cables in the Mediterranean Sea. He has also reportedly provided information regarding intelligence he received from a Syrian chemist concerning Syria’s alleged nuclear program.

Eissa’s main role is said to have been searching for potential recruits among employees of telecommunications companies in Egypt, Syria and Lebanon.  The extent of his success, however, remains unknown.

For at least three decades, Egypt and Israel have been engaged in mutual espionage that has yet to profoundly alter their multi-layered relationship.

“These spying incidents are recurrent.  We expect to see these little tiffs between Egypt and Israel,” said Amr al-Shobaki, an Egyptian political columnist. “Over the years, we are no longer surprised by any infringements one commits against the other.”

Gad, for his part, believes that the current row between Egypt and Israel is only temporary.  

“The Egyptian and Israeli governments have more in common than not, whether it’s from a security or economic standpoint,” he said. “They share an opposition to Hamas and Iran’s nuclear program, and have a lot of business deals that tie them together.”

Egypt’s construction of an underground steel barrier along its 14-kilometer border with the besieged Gaza Strip, ostensibly built to prevent underground smuggling operations, is an indication of the Egyptian regime’s commitment to Israeli security.  A 2009 US diplomatic cable released by online whistleblower WikiLeaks reveals that, within the last couple years, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has tried to stop Iranian weapons being smuggled from Egypt to Palestinian and Lebanese resistance groups.

“Egypt has always shown flexibility regarding its engagement with requests by Israel regarding its own security,” al-Shobaky said. “The government is still openly and privately committed to fulfilling the Camp David agreements.”

“I don’t think anything happened in 2010 that will change the relationship between Egypt and Israel,” he added. “The government will openly condemn certain Israeli acts, and call for more Israeli cooperation in the peace process, while committing to the same border and economic agreements that ties the two governments together.”

Many examples of Israel-Egypt cooperation, both on the official and social levels, have also been brought to light–to the dismay of many Egyptians. The first of these were reports earlier this year of an Egypt-Israel gas deal worth some US$10billion. Pundits in the Egyptian media decried the agreement, claiming that Egypt stood to lose money on the deal, as Israel would be buying the gas at prices lower than its market value.

Other reports this year revealed that, due to massive unemployment in Egypt, there were large numbers of Egyptian nationals working in Israel, and that Egyptians actually comprised some 13 percent of the Israeli army’s civilian workforce.

Despite the close economic ties to Israel, Egypt continues to keep the self-proclaimed Jewish state at arm’s length on a popular level. Earlier this year, Egypt’s High Administrative court requested that the government consider revoking the citizenship of Egyptians married to Israelis. The move came following the outcry caused by Israel’s attack on a Turkish aid flotilla in which nine Turkish activists–one of them a US citizen–were murdered.

The Egyptian government is generally expected to speak out against Israeli violations against the Palestinians–like the recent spate of air strikes targeting the Gaza Strip–with little in the way of follow-up.

This year also saw some analysts begin talking of Egypt’s “waning influence” in the Middle East peace process. Many international experts on Middle East politics have noted in prominent international newspapers that Egypt’s ability to influence regional issue was in a state of decline.

“Egypt’s influence is decreasing,” said Gad. “Egypt currently plays no more than an honorary role. During [late Palestinian Authority (PA) leader Yasser] Arafat’s time, Egypt acted as a mediator between the parties. But the PA and Hamas no longer need that. They have direct relations with Iran and Syria, and communicate directly with the US and Israel whenever they want.”

Barring a military confrontation, which, said Gad, is “very probable in Gaza this year,” he believes that the peace process will continue to limp along in 2011, despite the current deadlock. As for the current tension between Egypt and Israel, “this too will pass,” he said. “It always does.”

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