Odd couple Israel and Egypt enjoying ‘best times ever’

The two governments seem to be getting along after decades of wars and years of uneasy peace

(Dan Balilty/AP)

(Dan Balilty/AP)

CAIRO — Blast walls, sandbags, and guards with machine pistols manning checkpoints ring the Israeli diplomatic compound in the leafy Cairo suburb of Maadi.

But inside the Embassy, which doubles as Ambassador Haim Koren’s residence, you’d hardly notice any of the animosity traditionally felt by the Egyptian masses, for all the upbeat assessments of the future.

On a recent night at the compound, some two dozen Egyptians came for an iftar dinner, the traditional breaking of the fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which ends Tuesday. But the vast majority of them — including a cook wearing a Star of David T-shirt — were embassy employees.

“This is one of the best times we’ve ever had” in terms of co-operation between governments, said Koren, a veteran diplomat and fluent Arabic speaker posted here since 2014. “There’s good co-operation between the armies, we have understandings about the Sinai Peninsula, and basically, we see (eye-to-eye) on development of the region.”

After decades of wars followed by years of an uneasy peace, Israel has emerged as a discreet ally to Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, along with powerhouse Saudi Arabia and smaller, wealthy Gulf Arab countries.

El-Sissi, who as army chief overthrew his elected but divisive successor, the Islamist Mohammed Morsi in 2013, was heavily supported by those Gulf states. He has helped Israel further isolate the Hamas militants ruling the Gaza Strip, the tiny slice of Palestinian territory wedged between Egypt and Israel. Hamas had close ties with the former Egyptian leader and is rooted in Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood.

Israel often praises Sissi for his tough stance on militants, and considers him a key ally in what it sees as a shared battled against Islamic extremists.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and el-Sissi often speak on the phone. Last May,  welcomed what he described as el-Sissi’s “willingness” to help advance the peace process with the Palestinians, after el-Sissi said that Egypt’s relations with Israel could be warmer if it made peace with the Palestinians.

“We have common enemies in the sense of terrorism, or if you like, radical Islamic terrorism, emerged from the same root no matter if it happens to be Hamas or the Muslim Brotherhood, ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra or al-Qaida,” Koren said. El-Sissi “understood quickly that we are all in the same boat,” he added.

Israeli military officials believe that despite ideological differences, Hamas militants in Gaza are co-operating with extremists affiliated with Islamic State or other armed groups in Egypt’s neighbouring Sinai region. They praise Egypt’s crackdown on Hamas’ cross-border smuggling tunnels, which had been a main conduit for weapons into Gaza, and say the Egyptian military is doing an admirable job in a fierce battle against IS militants in Sinai.

Israel has allowed Egypt to move heavy weapons like tanks, artillery and attack helicopters into the restive Sinai Peninsula to fight extremists including a local Islamic State affiliate, overlooking provisions in the landmark 1979 peace treaty between the two countries. The two sides also are considered to have close intelligence ties.

But the relationship remains complex. Israel closed its embassy in Cairo during the tumult that followed the 2011 uprising against longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak, when outraged crowds attacked it over the killing of five Egyptian policemen by Israeli forces chasing militants in the Sinai. It didn’t reopen its embassy, now at the residence further from the city centre, until September 2015.

Leading figures across Egypt’s political spectrum still reject full normalization of Egyptian-Israeli relations, with many professional associations and labour unions banning members from visiting Israel. Last year, parliament voted to expel a contentious member after he had dinner at the embassy, and in the uproar that ensued, one newspaper published a photo of Koren with devil’s horns superimposed on his head.

Attempts at outreach to the Egyptian people can also backfire: Earlier this year a new Arabic-language Facebook page set up by the embassy was flooded with insults and anti-Semitic comments, with some likening Jews to pigs and others calling them killers over the long-running conflict with the Palestinians — a popular hot-button topic in Arab countries.

“Our aspiration is to come closer to the Egyptian people,” through cultural policy and social media, Koren said. “But we understand, it’s a long process, there’s a long way to go. That’s why the stability of Egypt is important, and also the success of its economy.”

Koren himself ventures outside his diplomatic compound only under heavy guard. His family remains back in Israel, and he frequently returns home.

Spokesmen for the Egyptian Foreign Ministry and presidency did not respond to request for comment on the topic, underlining its sensitivity. But jets carrying Israeli officials arrive regularly at Cairo’s international airport, where they are sometimes whisked away in official cars.

Egyptians who travel to Israel, even for religious pilgrimages, face scrutiny from their own state security forces, as do individuals entering the embassy compound, in the foreigner-friendly suburb of Maadi.

Koren said that despite the successful free trade areas for manufacturing known as QIZ zones, “it’s going very slow” with regard to developing Israeli expertise in sectors that could benefit the Egyptian economy, such as agriculture, irrigation and solar power.

“Media here used to say that we were poisoning the seeds of the vegetables,” for example, he said. Over the years a variety of myths have been perpetrated in the media — from attractive, HIV-positive women being sent to Sinai to infect Egyptian men, to sharks imported into the Red Sea to scare off tourists.

One boost to the relationship is Israel’s lack of any official commentary on human rights issues, unlike some Western nations or sometimes the United States, Koren said.

“We are not interfering in those domestic issues,” he said. “We don’t think it’s our role to educate or to preach for any kind of way that someone should run Egypt or any other country.”

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