Unlikely Allies, Israel and Egypt Face Joint Challenge in Gaza
The winds of war are blowing in Gaza. The last several months have been replete with rocket barrages, drones, incendiary balloons and kites (flaming or containing explosives) flying into Israeli airspace, and border breaches. Israel is working on solutions, but it is also looking to find help from an unlikely ally: Egypt.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met secretly earlier this month with Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. A few days later, Egypt’s intelligence chief, Abbas Kamal visited Israel as a guest of the Israeli National Security Advisor and probably also met Netanyahu. The conversations continue to focus on ways to tackle the crisis in Gaza – a territory that borders both countries.
Netanyahu and Sisi have a strong relationship, one based on both trust and mutual interests. They don’t hide this fact. Indeed, they meet publicly and have even allowed themselves to be photographed together, which is a marked shift from the Hosni Mubarak era.
The list of mutual interests for Egypt and Israel is considerable. This includes a mutual antipathy for Hamas. Egypt views the anti-Israel terrorist group as a threat because of its alliance with the previous Muslim Brotherhood regime of Mohammed Morsi. The two countries also work together to prevent the smuggling of arms from the Sinai Peninsula into the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. The Egyptian efforts to stymie smuggling via subterranean tunnels has been nothing short of remarkable.
The two countries also view the Islamic State presence in Sinai as a great danger, and they work in tandem to fight this threat. They similarly see the Iranian threat as one that must be countered, both in their immediate environs, as well as around the region.
Their current effort to find at least a short-term arrangement to reduce tensions in the restive Gaza Strip is a complicated one. Both sides understand that a long-lasting agreement is not likely with Hamas, primarily because the group will not renounce violence. And so long as the terrorist group retains control over this territory, neither Israel nor Egypt expects to be content with the outcome. Thus, while the two countries try to find ways to reduce the tension, they remain prepared for a new round of violence. After all, such rounds occur every few years.
Sisi wants Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority government in the West Bank to take control of Gaza. He even seems willing to provide some economic inducements to Hamas to help long-term broker quiet. The problem is that Abbas, who sees Hamas as a bitter political rival, won’t agree to anything that strengthens Hamas in any way. As Abbas said last week, an arrangement between Israel and Hamas will occur over his “dead body.”
External patrons of Hamas, such as Turkey and Qatar, would like to change the equation by affording more power to Hamas and strengthening the Muslim Brotherhood inside Egypt. This is something that both Egypt and Israel will not abide.
Iran, another Hamas patron, seeks to use Hamas as a means to challenge Israel by proxy. The more Hamas pesters Israel, the less time and energy the Israel Defense Forces will have to address the more serious Iran-sponsored threats on Israel’s northern borders. Indeed, Iran has already built up a considerable arsenal for Hezbollah in Lebanon and is trying to do the same with its forces and proxies in Syria, too.
There is, of course, the lingering question of whether the new U.S. peace plan – engineered by the Trump administration tandem of Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt – can help address the Gaza problem. Amidst the mixed signals about the content of the plan and the possible delays in the rollout, Cairo and Jerusalem cannot bank on Washington.
Israel has long-term goals for Gaza. A top priority is the return of its missing soldiers and citizens. In a perfect world, Israel would then ensure the demilitarization of the coastal enclave by eliminating smuggling and commando tunnels, missile caches, weapons labs, and more. But none of this looks possible right now.
With violence ongoing and no solutions in sight, Israel sees little choice but to respond to provocations on its borders, and to destroy terrorist infrastructure when deemed necessary.
This does not leave Egypt out of the equation. Egypt, which has held talks between the various Palestinian actors in recent weeks, continues to push for a short-term understanding in Gaza. Cairo continues to convey Israel’s offers of small concessions, as well as its warnings, should Hamas violate its red lines. The latter point is one that Cairo must reinforce: The next round of fighting, should it come to pass, promises to be much shorter and much more decisive and destructive than the previous rounds.
In other words, Cairo understands that the next war will be brutal. It continues to convey that should the two sides come to blows again, Hamas has much to lose. Indeed, Israel may use the next round to impose a new status quo in which the Israel Defense Forces herald the return of Palestinian Authority to Gaza after having been ejected by the terror group in the brutal internecine conflict of 2007.
Egypt continues to push for short-term agreements based on the terms of the ceasefire reached after the last major conflict in 2014. Hamas seeks the re-opening of the border with Israel and the easing of restrictions on fishing. But Israel can’t accommodate those requests while violence is ongoing. And this is a message that Cairo continues to convey.
But even the lack of violence is not sufficient for Israel. Hamas builds up its military capabilities during times of quiet in preparation for the next conflict. It is this cycle that Israel seeks to break. Only an agreement that gets to this crucial issue will be one that is deemed a success by Israel’s cabinet and the “Kirya” – the Israeli equivalent of the Pentagon.
Egypt thus plays a crucial role in preventing a conflict – one that Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman has warned will be very painful for both sides. Should that next conflict erupt, Hamas has now been warned: It could lead to the beginning of a very different long-term agreement, one where Hamas no longer controls the Gaza Strip, and with Egypt and Israel cooperating closely with the terror group’s successor.
Professor Jacob Nagel, Brigadier General (Reserve), is a visiting professor at the Technion Aerospace faculty and a visiting fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). He was previously head of Israel’s National Security Council and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s national security adviser (acting). Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst at the U.S. Treasury Department, is senior vice president at FDD.