Egypt's diplomatic games
Analysis: By sending his foreign minister to Israel, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was showing the world that Egypt means business, that it truly is the strongest player in the region, and that no one, especially not the US, should ignore it.
A frosty press awaited Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry when he returned home from his historic trip to Israel. He was particularly criticized for pictures taken of him and Prime Minister Netanyahu watching the Euro Cup finals together on TV. This picture, which wasn't a part of the official schedule, surprised the Egyptians. Was it an Israeli ploy to create a sense of normalization between the two countries? The Egyptians swallowed the bitter pill, and saw that even Egyptian President al-Sisi has an interest in broadcasting these pictures of normalization.
The Palestinians are furious. They are against even the tiniest sign of normalization with Israel as long as they themselves don't have an accord. But that’s the sad story of the Palestinian Authority—no one asks the Palestinians what they think.
The complaints about the picture are another example of the vast gulf between the close Israeli-Egyptian diplomatic and military ties and the hostility that remains in Egyptian media and on the Egyptian street towards Israel. The Egyptian president decided to provide the public at both nations with a peek into Israel-Egypt relations: He will continue hiding the security relations, while at the same time putting the diplomatic ties in the spotlight.
Although Sisi's foreign minister had to pay a heavy price for this decision, especially in terms of Egyptian public opinion, it was worth it. For both the Egyptians and the Israelis, the visit fulfilled its purpose.
Nevertheless, despite reports in the Arab press, there are no plans of any special events in the near future—no peace conferences and no state visits. While there are discussions in both nations about holding a trilateral meeting with the Palestinians, nothing is concrete is in the pipeline.
Israel isn't about to release 100 Palestinian prisoners tomorrow morning, either. This Palestinian precondition for a trilateral meeting as well as other preconditions—like the freezing of settlement construction for a year—were already expressed in a meeting between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the Egyptian foreign minister when the two met two weeks ago in Ramallah.
Jerusalem, and perhaps Cairo as well, must be very happy about the Arab reports that make it seem like we're initiating diplomatic moves.
The Egyptian foreign minister's visit was full of messages. Egyptian newspapers are raining fire and brimstone down on Turkey, and even Ramallah is furious at the fact that Ankara completely ignored them and went straight to Gaza. Meanwhile, al-Sisi sent Shoukry to tell anyone who wants to hear it—the Americans, the Palestinians, and mostly Hamas—that Turkeu was not a key player in the region. In this region, if you wanted to get things done—Egypt was who you turned to.
Meanwhile, in Israel, Defense Minister Lieberman is also setting the policy that views Egypt as Israel's most important strategic partner in the region—not Turkey and not Qatar. It's no wonder the Egyptian leadership has embraced Lieberman and Netanyahu so warmly.
The Americans are making the Egyptians crazy with human rights issues. President Obama and National Security Advisor Susan Rice are all but boycotting the Egyptians. Therefore, this demonstration of its close strategic relationship with Israel is a way for Cairo to tell Washington: Look how relevant we are in the diplomatic process between Ramallah and Jerusalem.
It’s clear to al-Sisi that the Egyptian initiative for Israeli-Palestinian dialogue that would also include dialogue between Israel and the Arab League is still in its infancy. He sent his foreign minister to Israel to make sure the commitment he received from Netanyahu several months ago, which led to his speech in May in support of peace talks, remains. This is a commitment to two states for two people, and the adoption of the Saudi peace initiative with negotiations over Israeli reservations. During Shoukry's visit, the Egyptians clarified they aren't opposed to the French initiative, and that it isn't at odds with the Egyptian initiative. Egypt sees its own initiative as intertwined with the French initiative, and Cairo will one day head one of the working groups which will be formed under the framework of the agreement.
But there are still those who are trying to sabotage the good relations between the two countries. A Bloomberg article published a day after the visit claimed that Israel has been using its drones to attack ISIS targets in Sinai. Even if it's not true, it caused serious damage to both countries. It embarrassed Israel, suspected to have leaked the information, and gave ISIS even more reason to take revenge on the Jewish state.
And as if that’s not enough, a report on an Israeli violation of Egyptian sovereignty in the Sinai, which portrays the Egyptian Armed Forces as a military that needs help from the IDF, only adds fuel to the fire of opposition against al-Sisi and to anti-Israel sentiments.