Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Emirates, three close allies, are building a new regional security order and want Israel on board. The Gulf countries need it for countering Iran, Egypt needs it for the Mediterranean’s security. Nevertheless, this requires a solution to the Palestinian issue.
Some principles govern Egypt’s approach to the Palestinian issue. First, it wants a unified Palestinian leadership. Therefore, it invests a lot in supporting a Palestinian reconciliation. It suspects both Palestinian parties to be uninterested in this. For the Palestinian authority, Gaza is a mess, and a black hole difficult to manage. Hamas does not want to relinquish real control of Gaza. Second, Egypt wants Gaza, the branches of Hamas and Fatah in Gaza, and other forces in Gaza, to have a bigger say in the Palestinian decision-making process. Those who live in Gaza are supposed to have a better understanding of Egypt’s preoccupations and to be more sensitive to its concerns. Third, Egypt wants to eradicate terror cells in Sinai. Jihadist groups collaborate with their Palestinian counterparts in Gaza, and Hamas too often tolerated this, turning a blind eye, or worse, helped the Sinai insurgency. Gaza provided weapons and safe havens when the Egyptian army’s pressure was too strong. At least key components of the Hamas leadership, and maybe all the movement’s branches, have now changed their minds. Jihadist groups are no longer a tool but a threat. Therefore, Egypt wants to capitalize on this. Fourth, Egypt wants Hamas to be less dependent (at least) on Iran, Turkey and Qatar. The Saudis and the Emiratis concur, and they can fund Gaza.
There are of course many snags: for instance, the Palestinian authority’s security apparatus has not monitored Gaza for more than a decade. It is unfamiliar with the cartography of jihadists there. Hamas’ security has much deeper and more up-to-date knowledge, but is less reliable in the long term, as they can at anytime revert to their old policy of “looking the other way”. Why the Palestinian authority should accept leaving the security issue to its former foe is also a pertinent question. So the question of “who should handle the security issues” in Gaza is a matter of debate. At one point Egypt seemed closer to a solution built on leaving this to Hamas. I do not know if this is still the case. The snag is obvious: regaining control of Gaza is much less interesting for Ramallah if these are the terms of the deal.
Of course the Egyptians keep an eye on the struggle for President Abbas’ successor, and on Mohammed Dahlan’s role in Gaza and his possible role in Palestinian leadership. They appreciate Dahlan’s clout in Gaza and the outcomes his relations with Hamas can eventually bring, but they also know that many in Fatah consider him to be the “man who lost Gaza” (in 2007).
Everyone in the region is preparing for Trump’s “deal of the century”. The main Arab players think its terms will be prejudicial to the Palestinians. The status of Jerusalem is only a case in point. In Egypt’s regime circles, heated debates oppose different views. To simplify a complex matter, we can say that some want to capitalize on Egyptian public opinion’s unprecedented hatred for Hamas to settle the issue once for all, as it is vital for Egypt to stabilize the region and to build a new security order. They also add that the current balance of power means any escalation would lead to further Palestinian losses, notably in Jerusalem. Last, they think Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is the last “realist” in Israel and the only one able to “deliver” a peace agreement. The other side considers the probable terms of the deal to be too unfair and, think Egyptian public opinion will not swallow a solution entailing the loss of Jerusalem. The deal would be a serious, potentially lethal threat to Egypt and Saudi Arabia’s stability. No deal, they conclude, is better than this deal. If we are to believe The New York Times, the first camp has the upper hand. It is interesting, however, to note that al-Azhar’s institutions, a key regime ally, adopted a very firm stance against Trump’s decision to move the American embassy to Jerusalem. And to note that the regime carefully avoided any real escalation [reaction?]. In any case, Egypt and Saudi Arabia are cooperating to define a common stance and to better the terms of the expected deal.
Relations with Israel are unexpectedly good. President al-Sisi and Prime Minister Netanyahu are said to regularly exchange views by phone.
The international media often says Israel and Egypt collaborate on the security of Sinai. The NYT recently published a story saying Israel frequently bombed the jihadists with the approval of President al-Sisi. It was quoting Western, not Israeli sources. Cairo denied this. Generally speaking, it tends to say such reports are either untrue or strongly exaggerated. They point to shortcomings in the cooperation, to second thoughts, etc.
Some foreign diplomats think the jihadi problem has paradoxically enabled Egypt to again establish a military presence in areas where this was forbidden by the peace treaty with Israel.
Whatever the truth about this topic, Egypt and Israel clearly cooperate on the crucial natural gas issue. Egypt’s private companies, with the government’s approval, recently concluded a deal with Israel to import Israeli natural gas and liquefy it. Egypt needs Israel to be on its side, as a confrontation with Turkey, now Egypt’s worst enemy, on natural gas fields is looming.
Egypt does not seem too worried about the internal discussions in Israel, where some question the usefulness of a grand bargain with Saudi Arabia, with some even preferring to approach Iran.
Egypt also needs Israel’s advocacy in the USA. The Israelis did indeed exert pressure on the Obama administration after the toppling of president Morsi.
Economic relations are discreet and many-sided. There are the QIZ agreements, enabling Egypt to export some of its products to the USA without tariffs and quota restrictions, provided they have a percentage of Israeli components. There is cooperation on hydraulic and agriculture technology. In addition, there are tourist flows.