By Colonel (res.) Dr. Eran Lerman*
Egypt’s public welcome of the normalization between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan is one of the payoffs emerging from the important Egypt-Israel partnership in the eastern Mediterranean.
The Government of Egypt has warmly welcomed the normalization agreements between Israel and three Arab countries (including Sudan, with which Egypt has a deep and influential relationship). This is a sharp departure from Egyptian practices of the past and constitutes one of the rewards of Israel’s commitment to a new Mediterranean alignment of forces.
Regarding the question of EEZ delineation (and the related struggle for the future of Libya), Israel has lent open support for the Greek and Egyptian position, in the face of Turkish provocations and in rejection of the Turkish-Libyan claims. This is an important aspect of strategic commonality between Israel and the positions of Egypt, the UAE and France. In parallel with the recent Greek-Cypriot-Egyptian summit, Israel’s Minister for Regional Cooperation visited Greece to sign a cooperation plan which brings together Israel, Greece, Cyprus, the UAE and Bahrain. This was followed by Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi’s trilateral talks, also in Athens, with his Greek and Cypriot colleagues.
These are all building blocks of a new regional alignment which is particularly important at this time especially for Egypt. It is vital for Israel to sustain close Mediterranean cooperation in the period of uncertainty which lies ahead, building upon the signs of American and European impatience with the aggressive postures of Turkey’s President Erdogan.
The Egyptian Position
The Joint Declaration of the 8th trilateral Egyptian-Greek-Cypriot summit, held in Nicosia on October 21, focused upon the need to confront the increasingly dangerous aspects of Erdogan’s overt neo-Ottoman ambitions. The list of Erdogan’s provocations includes infringements of Greek and Cypriot sovereignty; support for terrorism (which is Egypt’s way of describing the role of Turkey in hosting the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas); the Turkish extended presence in northern Syria; and the two memoranda of understanding signed with the Fu’ad Sarraj “Government of National Accord” in Libya. One agreement sought to delineate an EEZ in the eastern Mediterranean (which contradicts the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea). The other agreement provided for the supply of weapons as well as the deployment of Turkish troops (and Islamist militiamen from Syria) in Libya, which contradicts the UN arms embargo.
Clearly, it is this set of challenges which is uppermost on the three leaders’ minds. President Sisi has threatened to respond with a full-scale military intervention of her own in Libya. Egypt has been able to impose – for now – an uneasy equilibrium there, which has led to the beginning of practical negotiations between the warring sides.
This set of priorities has an impact, in turn, on attitudes towards Israel. True, the Joint Declaration did include (as did those issued after previous tripartite summits) a standard reference to the need for a Palestinian-Israeli solution based on the 1967 lines, and a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem. But it also fully welcomed and supported the “Abraham Accords,” the agreements between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain, as a contribution to peace and regional stability. This is a notable departure from past Egyptian attitudes, which used to be chilly, if not worse regarding Israel. (Once upon a time, yet still within the living memory of many in the region, former Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Musa had been speaking of harwala, an indecent rush, towards Israel). Egypt has issued its own welcoming statements of the Abraham Accords too, and then added a firm message of support for Sudan’s decision to commence procedures towards normalization.
The two sets of issues, the Turkish threat, and the Egyptian response to the normalization agreements, are interconnected. The Turkish challenge is historically of uppermost importance for Greece (essentially since the country’s modern birth in a rebellion against the Ottomans in the 1820s). So too for Cyprus, certainly after the Turkish invasion of 1974 and the creation of the TRNC. Recently, the opening of the ghost town of Varosha, near Famagusta (which had been depopulated by the invasion and left in no-man’s land) came to be seen in Nicosia and Athens as another Turkish provocation. Their concerns are acute and well-established.
Why is Egypt now focused upon the Turkish challenge? Historically, Cairo has not favored the prospect of Israel playing a strong strategic role in the region. Popular sentiments towards Israel in Egypt remain hostile (and specifically so, those of the intellectual and cultural elite). However, other political and ideological priorities, as well as geo-strategic and economic considerations have brought about a profound change in Egyptian preferences.
The present leadership of Egypt is viewed by Erdogan as illegitimate usurpers of power. This has been the case since the overthrow of Mohammed Mursi and the Moslem Brotherhood in July 2013 (and the bloody suppression of the Moslem Brotherhood demonstrators in the Rab’ah al-‘Adawiayyh quarter of Cairo, one month later). There is an active presence on Turkish soil of active elements of the Moslem Brotherhood, which Sisi looks upon as a mortal threat. More generally, Erdogan has positioned himself and his AK Party as the patrons of Islamist political forces across the region (and beyond it), while openly trumpeting neo-Ottoman ambitions. As far as President ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi is concerned, these are positions that turn Turkey into the most dangerous threat to Egypt and to his own standing and even survival.
Since 2014, this rivalry has also taken the form of a proxy war in Libya. The situation there took a turn for the worse in 2019, first when the “Libyan National Army” of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, backed by Egypt, advanced on Tripoli and laid siege to the Turkish-backed “Government of National Accord.” Then, as mentioned above, Turkey signed the two MoUs with Sarraj and then intervened with force. By May 2020 this had led to the defeat of the LNA in western Libya and a retreat to the Sirte-Jufra line. This explains the importance for Egypt of drawing “a line in the sand” in Libya; and of building an alignment of forces in the eastern Mediterranean (including Israel) to balance against Erdogan’s power.
Moreover, the Turkish-Libyan map of the EEZ delineation in the eastern Mediterranean also threatens Egypt’s ability to access European markets for the gas from Zuhr and other offshore gas fields. Here again, Egypt’s interests cohere with those of Israel and Cyprus. Turkish policies seem to be designed to challenge the positions of all three countries (and obviously of Greece, whose EEZ rights off Crete and Rhodes are blatantly ignored by the Turkish map). Matters have been aggravated in recent weeks by the aggressive assertion of Turkey’s right to carry out seismic surveys in waters which Ankara claims as part of its “Blue Homeland” (Mavi Vatan) concept.
Egypt’s need to work closely with Israel is rooted not only in the Turkish challenge. For several years, the two countries have been working in close coordination to confront the threat posed by the presence in Sinai of elements affiliated with the Islamic State. Israel’s support for Egypt in Washington, particularly on Capitol Hill, is also of great importance to Sisi. The strategic relationship with the United States remains indispensable for the Egyptian leadership (and the Egyptian military), despite Egypt’s good relations with China and Russia.
Still, even these aspects of Egyptian national security strategy are interwoven now with the Mediterranean dimension. As indicated by the Joint Declaration of October 21, Egypt looks upon the counter-terrorist struggle in the eastern Mediterranean as a common effort. Moreover, Sisi’s standing in Washington is enhanced if he can make his case there as an ally of Israel and Greece (which are countries with strong supportive constituencies in the US).
Thus, the Mediterranean aspect of Egyptian policy (as well as the other considerations listed above, such as the situation in Sinai) looms large as one of the main reasons for the shift in Egypt’s position towards Arab normalization with Israel. Within the last few years, Israel has become a key player in the emergence of a new alignment in the eastern Mediterranean. Greece and Cyprus have engaged in two parallel sets of trilateral summits (eight so far with Egypt, seven with Israel). These, in turn, led to the decision (yet to be implemented) to create two parallel permanent secretariats in Nicosia, one for each trilateral group. Then came the emergence of the EMGF (created in January 2019) and its establishment as a regional organization (September 2020).
This Israeli role is also reflected in military practices. The IAF, as well as the Egyptian and the UAE Air Forces, have been taking part in the annual Iniochos exercises in Greece, and other large-scale joint exercises. The Greek Air Force reciprocates by joining the bi-annual “Blue Flag” international exercises in the Negev. Meanwhile, elite IDF special forces units regularly train in Cyprus, in high mountainous terrain.
At the level of formal and legal positions, Israel (and again, the UAE) have lent firm support for the Egyptian-Greek EEZ delineation agreement signed on August 6. Israel also took the initiative to bring the UAE and Bahrain into a framework of cooperation on regional development and economic investment. Although the latter nations cannot be considered Mediterranean, they have been deeply involved in the struggle in Libya and elsewhere in the region for the last decade.
The visit in Athens by Israel’s Foreign Minister (former Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi) for a round of trilateral talks at the ministerial level is another significant milestone, coming as an unequivocal message of support at this tense period. Interestingly, the trilateral meetings also coincided with the visit in Athens of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. With Russia often dealing with acute challenges from Turkey – in Syria, Libya, and to some extent, Nagorno-Karabakh – Moscow apparently favors Israeli-Hellenic cooperation as a check on Turkish ambitions. For Egypt, which had been working closely with the Russians to support Haftar’s LNA in Libya, this is another indication that the Mediterranean arena is the key to Egypt’s future.
Thus, the normalization between Israel and other allies of Egypt (such as the Emirates) has become an asset, not a liability, from Cairo’s point of view. Egypt does continue to raise the standard pro-Palestinian slogans, and the attitudes of the Egyptian “street” (or to be more precise, of noisy elements among the cultural and intellectual elites) remain hostile to Israel. But in the context of the current debate on normalization – on which the Palestinians have taken a fiercely negative stance – Egypt’s affirmative response is strategically significant.
To lend further weight to these considerations, Israeli policy and diplomacy should:
Directly reflect, at the highest level, appreciation and gratification. Given the atmosphere in the public domain, it took courage for the Egyptian leadership to stake out a firm and consistent line in favor of normalization.
Continue the present efforts to enhance the alignment by giving the EMGF practical content. Create and man the planned trilateral secretariat; plan the next trilateral summit; and promote closer relations on military supply and production with Greece and Cyprus.
Focus upon securing support for the alignment in Washington on a bipartisan basis, and plan for engagement with the Administration (or the transition team) after the elections.
Build upon the French-Turkish rift. France has recalled its Ambassador from Ankara in response to Erdogan’s lashing at Macron. Work to draw Paris firmly into the alignment and use its stance and authority within the EU to modify the latter’s positions.
* Dr. Lerman was deputy director for foreign policy and international affairs at the National Security Council in the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office. He held senior posts in IDF Military Intelligence for over 20 years. He also served for eight years as director of the Israel and Middle East office of the American Jewish Committee.