This column is part of a series based on seven days of meetings in Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Tel Aviv, Israel, with top officials and experts from the Israeli government, Palestinian Authority, and other international organizations.
In his office perched high in the Tel Aviv skyline in the Ministry of Defense, an Israeli defense official sighed when discussing—with the delegation from the Center for American Progress currently visiting Israel—the turmoil and political changes taking place in the countries around Israel and predicted a “troubled coexistence” ahead for Israel and its neighbors.
But when the discussion turned to specific, behind-the-scenes details of Israeli-Egyptian security coordination in recent months, this Israeli official outlined ongoing lines of communication across multiple points of contact. A separate discussion later that afternoon with an Egyptian diplomat based in Tel Aviv confirmed the basic details of multiple Israeli-Egyptian channels operating to address a range of security challenges. Although problems remain and the bilateral Israel-Egypt relationship is far from perfect, there are very active efforts underway to maintain the commitments made in the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty.
When former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was pushed from office two years ago, many observers worried about the imminent collapse of the peace treaty. This hasn’t happened—in large part because it remains in the overall national interests of both countries to maintain this security framework. It is also due to engaged leadership, support, and military support from the United States to both Israel and Egypt.
The United States should continue this support. Recent proposals from some voices in Congress to cut off military assistance to Egypt—including a recent bill that Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, introduced to conditionally suspend certain military sales to Egypt—would not advance U.S. national security interests if implemented. Those voices in Congress calling for cuts in military assistance to Egypt who argue that they are seeking to protect Israel need to listen more carefully to what Israel’s security officials think: The consensus is that now is not the time to make rash cuts in assistance to Egypt.
The approach that the Obama administration has adopted on Egypt since 2011 has generally struck the right balance of trying to advance U.S. interests and values—seeking to manage change in Egypt, as I argued in this report last year. The administration has done more to voice concerns about the growing political legitimacy crisis and concerns about the lack of pluralism, but it can also do more to prepare policy options for the next phase of Egypt’s transition. On balance and considering the many complications, however, the Obama administration has done a good job advancing U.S. regional security interests.
Israelis are concerned about the potential long-term impact of Egypt’s political and security transition on Israel’s national security interests. But for the time being, Egypt’s and Israel’s military and intelligence services maintain an active dialogue on important regional security questions such as security threats from terrorist groups in the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip.
The United States serves as an important interlocutor in this dialogue. This coordination was on full display last November when violence flared up in the Gaza Strip and Egypt, Israel, and the United States worked behind the scenes to arrange a ceasefire and prevent a wider conflict. In a poll conducted late last year, two-thirds of Israelis said that Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi had a positive impact in ending the violence last November.
Beneath the turmoil and heated political rhetoric in Egypt, the country’s security establishment has continued to work with Israel and the United States to address regional security threats. The fact that this security coordination between Egypt and Israel has not collapsed as some predicted indicates that key officials in Egypt understand it is in their country’s own national security interests to maintain the security framework that was established more than 30 years ago in the peace treaty between the two countries.
The Egyptian official based in Tel Aviv outlined a concept of linking the challenges together in a process for managing and deescalating conflict as a possible bridge to resolving the larger dispute. He highlighted three tracks—first, the ongoing indirect discussion between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian terrorist organization and political party, in which Egypt plays the lead role as the main intermediary. These talks were a natural extension of the efforts to deescalate last November’s conflict and are focused on ways to improve the quality of life in Gaza while addressing Egyptian and Israeli security concerns. The second track is internal Palestinian reconciliation and the Egyptian attempts to consummate a deal between Hamas and Fatah, the secular-nationalist party that has dominated the Palestine Liberation Organization for decades, which would lead to the Palestinian Authority’s return to the Gaza Strip. The third track is the idea of reviving negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians in coordination with the two other tracks.
As this Egyptian official described the concept, he made the argument that a large part of the effort is to persuade Hamas to moderate its views and adopt a different stance toward Israel—something that may be a mission impossible with many members of Hamas. But these behind-the-scenes attempts are ongoing, and while they may not deliver major breakthroughs on the peace process, they could be crucial for managing the complicated security situation.
Last November’s fighting vividly illustrated the threats to Israel from Gaza—most notably rockets fired indiscriminately at Israeli population centers by Hamas and other militant groups. Egypt has continued to play a key role in managing the threats from Gaza, intercepting weapons smugglers and flooding Gaza’s notorious smuggling tunnels with sewage. Both Egypt and Israel also face threats from Islamist militants in the Sinai who have taken advantage of the disruption caused by Egypt’s transition to destabilize the Egypt-Israel border and the peninsula as a whole. These groups have staged attacks against Egyptian soldiers, the multinational peacekeepers monitoring the Egypt-Israel peace, and Israeli soldiers across the border.
All throughout, the United States has remained deeply engaged in efforts to safeguard Israel’s security and its own interests. In September 2011 high-level American intervention prevented the Israeli embassy in Cairo from being overrun by a mob of unruly demonstrators. And as the situation in the Sinai deteriorated over 2012, the United States took a number of steps to help Egypt bring it under control, including offers of increased intelligence sharing to combat militants. Finally, the Gaza conflict highlighted the importance of the Iron Dome antirocket system—funded significantly by the United States—in protecting Israeli civilians from attack.
The bottom line is that the United States has a critical role to play in maintaining Egypt and Israel’s ongoing and vital security cooperation relationship. Doing so protects both American national interests in a stable Middle East and the security of Israeli citizens who would face the prospect of a more volatile region.
It also necessarily entails maintaining American security assistance to Egypt and its military—though neither Americans nor Egyptians should consider this aid a blank check that will keep coming every year regardless of the actions of the new civilian government in Cairo. Right now, however, this aid should continue despite congressional schemes to eliminate it. The triangular security relationship between Egypt, Israel, and the United States has proven too valuable over the past two years to jeopardize it without sufficient cause. At the same time, relevant Egyptian and American officials should work at reconfiguring this aid to make the Egyptian military more effective at dealing with threats like those emerging presently in the Sinai.
More than two years ago, Egypt ousted then-President Hosni Mubarak and began a disorganized political and economic transition that has swept Islamists into government and the presidency in the first two years. But this transition remains incomplete, and Egypt’s future remains undetermined. In order to secure its own interests and the security of Israel, the United States has little choice but to remain engaged at high levels with Egypt on security cooperation.
Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.