Israel and Egypt: the new allies

By Anshel Pfeffer, June 10, 2010
Palestinians while away an electricity-free evening with gas lamps, in the town of Rafah in southern Gaza

Palestinians while away an electricity-free evening with gas lamps, in the town of Rafah in southern Gaza

The fallout from the Gaza flotilla and the emergence of Turkey as a clear ally of Iran and Syria and all but an official enemy of Israel, is part of a radically changing balance of power in the region, one that is seeing unprecedented levels of cooperation between Israel and Egypt.

Senior Israeli officials have been saying in recent months that Egypt has been pursuing two seemingly opposite courses in its relationship with Israel.

On one hand, its representatives have been criticising Israeli policies in the media and on international platforms, especially when demanding that Israel reveals its nuclear capabilities.

On the other hand, the daily security co-ordination between the two countries and work in fields of joint interest is as close as it has been during any period since the two countries signed the Camp David peace accords over three decades ago.

While these contacts are going on mainly behind the scenes, it has not been lost on the Egyptian public and in opposition demonstrations in recent weeks, the masses have taken to chanting "Mubarak Zionist".

The most immediate enemy the two countries have in common is Hamas. While, officially, the Palestinian movement's leaders are welcomed in Cairo, the regime is deeply suspicious of the group that derives its ideology from the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest Islamist opposition group in Egypt.

Mr Mubarak and his advisors know that if there is ever an Islamic revolution in Egypt, it will be supported actively by Hamas. That is the main reason the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip has remained largely closed since Hamas seized control.

While most of the international criticism over the Gaza blockade was focused on Israel, official spokesmen in Jerusalem never responded that the Egyptians should share the blame. The countries were in constant contact, even during Operation Cast Lead, co-ordinating the policy at the crossings. Israel did not want to shame Mr Mubarak.

Even the latest Egyptian decision partially to open the Rafah Crossing was made with silent Israel approval in the hope that it would alleviate pressure on both countries.

Egypt has also been conspicuously absent from the chorus of condemnation of Israel's handling of the flotilla. Mr Mubarak rarely loses sight of the bigger picture and he is just as worried as the Israelis by the realignment of Turkey - once the most moderate and westernised of Islamic countries - with radical Syria and Iran, Egypt's main rivals for leadership in the Arab and Muslim camp. The pro-government press in Egypt cannot write favourably of Israel but it has found creative ways of criticising Turkey and the flotilla. The Ankara government has been blamed for harming the Palestinian cause by siding with Hamas and thereby weakening the Palestinian Authority and its president, Mahmoud Abbas. A Muslim Brotherhood leader who took part in the flotilla and spoke of the way he fought the Israeli soldiers was pilloried for "handing the Israelis a PR coup". An Israeli intelligence analyst wryly observed this week that Israel may be losing a strategic ally in Turkey but at least "we are rediscovering the advantages of Camp David".

Last updated: 2:00pm, June 10 2010