Ever the Day After: Egypt, Israel and Gaza

Pushing the boundaries: an Israeli tank pictured near the border crossing with Egypt in Rafah. Image: IDF Spokesperson's Unit / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Egypt and Israel signed the Camp David Accords in 1978, the first peace treaty between the Jewish state and any of its Arab neighbours. The accords are the bedrock of the region’s security architecture, but owing to Israel’s war on Gaza and its moves at the border between Gaza and Egypt, the relationship between Cairo and Tel Aviv has reached its lowest point in decades. In US President Joe Biden’s recent speech on the crisis, he mentioned a clear role for Cairo in not only negotiations, but the ‘day after’. What kind of state are Egyptian-Israeli relations in, and how might this impact the future? Jonathan Eyal (JE) asked RUSI Senior Associate Fellow H A Hellyer (HH) about the significance of these events.

JE: Camp David was a historic peace treaty between Cairo and Tel Aviv, and laid down the groundwork for a new regional security arrangement for the region in general, and Egypt and Israel in particular. Are we seeing that security arrangement unravel?

HH: The Camp David Accords had a number of annexes attached to them. One of these describes several different zones; Sinai is divided into three zones (A, B and C), and then there is ‘Zone D’ which is along the border between Gaza and Egypt, on the Gazan side. Article 2/D of Annex 1 is very clear about what type of Israeli military forces are allowed to exist in that zone, which was later described as the ‘Philadelphi Corridor’. There’s no question that when the Israelis moved tanks into the Corridor on 7 May and took over the Rafah border crossing, they violated that article, and they’ve done much more since then. Last week, Tel Aviv declared that it had taken over the entire corridor, again violating the terms of the Camp David Accords.

We should be clear-eyed about this: Israel’s moves are seriously endangering the region’s security architecture, and many analysts – myself included – have warned over the past eight months that reckless escalatory behaviour will put all under the ‘law of unintended consequences’. If we’re frank, Israel’s moves over the past eight months have been incredibly reckless and have raised the likelihood of conflict breaking out across the region – between Israel and Iran, Israel and Lebanon, and now Israel and Egypt. It’s a testament to the region that we haven’t seen all-out war break out, despite these kinds of moves; it shows how little appetite there is for widespread conflict. But I think Tel Aviv is pushing the envelope hard, and it’s difficult to imagine there won’t be consequences.

JE: Are you saying Egypt might pull out of Camp David?

HH: No, I think Cairo continues to place great value on the treaty, and will be looking for other ways to express its rejection of Tel Aviv’s moves. As recently as 2 June, when Israel, the US and Egypt convened to discuss the issue, Cairo reiterated its demand that the Israelis withdraw from the Rafah border crossing. This is why, for example, Egypt announced it would join South Africa’s case at the International Court of Justice against Israel, and Cairo refused to coordinate with the Israelis on usage of the Rafah border crossing, clearly seeing such coordination as recognising the legitimacy of the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) presence there. Cairo may be pointing to the fact there are seven other border crossings, also completely under Israel’s control; several of them have been permanently closed by the Israelis, such as Karni and Sufa, but could be opened in order to provide aid relief to Palestinians in Gaza. Moreover, Israel’s official spokesperson, David Mencer, said to journalists that Israel had asked Egypt to open up so that Palestinians who wanted to flee to Sinai could do so, but that the request had been declined. There’s widespread concern in Cairo that Israel will take any opportunity to ethnically cleanse Palestinians from Gaza and displace them to Sinai, if it can do so; such admissions by Israel’s officials do not help.

Israel’s moves over the past eight months have been incredibly reckless and have raised the likelihood of conflict breaking out across the region

But there are other things to be concerned about, as Israel continues to engage in more reckless behaviour. A recent clash near the Rafah border crossing led to the death of an Egyptian soldier; Israeli media itself reported that the clash resulted from an Israeli provocation, designed to test Egypt’s reaction. Even without such moves, the risk assessment is serious; Israeli forces along the border in Rafah are seen by the Egyptians not only as violating the peace treaty, but also as part of an occupying power in occupied territory – which is also how London, the EU, the UN and most governments see Israel in Gaza. Egyptian soldiers on the border are no doubt impacted by that; they are seeing an occupying power in Gaza, right on their doorstep, where they know it’s not supposed to be, and they also know that nearby, that same army is engaged in massive hostilities against Palestinians in Rafah. Those soldiers see the same news reports that you and I see, and know that the UN and various agencies are reporting all manners of suffering as a result of the IDF operation. This time, the clash resulted in the death of one soldier; what happens next time, considering everything else that is going on?

JE: OK, so things are rocky. But we have a normalisation of political relations between Egypt and Israel going back more than four decades. We also have a more recent set of normalisations between Israel and Arab states in terms of the Abraham Accords, and a new deal being proposed that would normalise relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel. How does that impact Egypt, as it was the first to normalise, which gave it a certain leverage in terms of relations with Western powers?

HH: There are a few things to mention here; the first is that the Biden administration has invested tremendous energy in expanding the Abraham Accords. Indeed, many analysts characterised Biden’s Middle East policy as prioritising extending those accords, and very little else. Incredibly, despite the massively destructive conflict of the past eight months, the administration has still directed a lot of its limited bandwidth towards efforts to normalise Israel’s political relationship with Saudi Arabia. There’s a lot to unpack there, but I’m not convinced it will succeed, because Tel Aviv has already said it won’t accede to the fairly minimalist demands that Saudi Arabia has, which are all about fulfilling certain UN Security Council resolutions.

Be that as it may, there were also concerns expressed in 2020, when the Abraham Accords were signed, in terms of what they might do to Cairo’s geopolitical standing. The talk at the time was that they would decrease Cairo’s – and also Amman’s – importance in the region, because now there were other Arab states that had relations with Israel. But the truth is, whenever a crisis emerges involving Israel, the world still calls on Cairo and Amman, and moreso on Cairo. None of that has changed; they don’t call on Abu Dhabi, Manama or anywhere else in the same way. Cairo in particular has relationships not only with the Israelis, but with pretty much every major Palestinian faction.

In any case, my assessment of the Saudi-Israeli normalisation deal remains the same – I’m not sure we’ll be seeing that anytime soon.

Whenever a crisis emerges involving Israel, the world still calls on Cairo and Amman, and moreso on Cairo. They don’t call on Abu Dhabi, Manama or anywhere else in the same way

JE: Perhaps, but the normalisation deal is all about the ‘day after’, and Biden’s plan put a lot of focus on trying to see beyond the current hostilities. What’s Egypt’s role in that regard?

HH: There are a lot of scenarios being discussed for Gaza following the end of hostilities. The problem is, most of them have been vetoed by the Israelis, so it becomes rather academic and abstract to even discuss them without addressing the elephant in the room, which is Israel’s occupation of Gaza, along with its military presence therein. Even the Israelis have found themselves in rather awkward situations due to this; Netanyahu announced in early May that the Emiratis could be involved in governing Gaza following the war, only to be met with a very public denunciation of the idea by the Emirati foreign minister. The stumbling block, including for Abu Dhabi – irrespective of the Abraham Accords – was the Israeli occupation, and the absence of a Palestinian government with ‘integrity, competence and independence’, which would then have the capacity to invite the UAE to assist.

It's not only Arab states that reject ‘providing cover for the Israeli presence in the Gaza Strip’, as the Emiratis put it; I don’t think any country or multilateral organisation is interested in assisting in governing Gaza, without a clear commitment from the Israelis that they are leaving. Otherwise, such a presence would simply be interpreted as being Israel’s police force in the Gaza Strip – and thus quite likely targeted as part of the occupation. I’m not sure anyone would willingly take on that role; Cairo certainly won’t.

I think if Biden is successful in getting a permanent ceasefire and an Israeli withdrawal of troops, as well as a commitment to allow a track towards a Palestinian state that includes Gaza, then yes, Egypt could probably be convinced to deploy troops as part of a broader and temporary international force, similar to KFOR in Kosovo, for example.

But that’s a lot of ‘ifs’. The irony of all of this is that it is actually quite clear what a workable plan in Gaza entails, and it has been for decades. The question has always been: is the international community in general, and the US in particular, going to use its leverage to push such a workable plan forward? So far, the answer has been a firm ‘no’ – and the Israelis know it.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Dr H A Hellyer

Senior Associate Fellow

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