Home inFocus Israel (Summer 2019) Egyptian Mediation in Gaza: A Strategic Asset

Egyptian Mediation in Gaza: A Strategic Asset

Dr. Eran Lerman Spring 2019
Palestinian security forces patrol the border area of southern Gaza Strip with Egypt in 2015. (Photo: Abed Rahim Khatib/Alamy)

It is in Israel’s interest to solidify the Egyptian role in the Gaza Strip in the context of “conflict management” as a governing policy concept. Egyptian participation in the efforts to stabilize the situation in Gaza serves as an important component in the vital Egypt-Israel relationship. It also helps erode Hamas’s pretension of jihad.

A temporary and fragile calm was established vis-à-vis Hamas and other “resistance groups” in the Gaza Strip during the run-up to the Israeli elections on April 9, 2019. This came in response to significant economic gestures by Israel, but it was by no means a solution to the basic problems posed by the dangerous and complex military and political reality in this part of the world. The lingering frustration of the residents of the border areas (the Gaza “envelope,” in Israeli parlance) and that of many other Israelis with Hamas provocations is understandable and justified.

Still, there are no magic solutions hidden up anyone’s sleeve. A systemic and persistent engagement in managing the conflict, without a “decisive outcome” as traditionally understood in Israeli security doctrine, is probably the pattern best suited for Israeli needs in the foreseeable future. The alternatives are costlier and more difficult, and their chances of success are doubtful.

In this context, a unique role is played by Egypt – or to be more precise, by the Egyptian intelligence services – which can be used with “plausible deniability” and without granting diplomatic recognition to the de facto Hamas regime in Gaza. This is of broad strategic importance, both for Israel and for others in the region, including the Egyptian leadership, who share Israel’s sense of threat and order of priorities.

Egypt as the CEO

Much in the same way as Israel uses Russian good offices in Syria, Egypt’s contribution makes it possible to deliver unambiguous messages to the Hamas leadership. These messages, in turn, rest upon Israel’s proven ability to exact a heavy price from Hamas by military means. This establishes a triangular diplomatic maneuver that is aimed, from Israel’s perspective, at bringing about a restored calm for as long a period as possible, but without falling into the trap of direct dialogue with forces committed to Israel’s destruction.

On the economic side of the equation, Qatar (closely supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood, and hence also Hamas) plays the role of funder for the Gaza Strip – a role which Egypt, for obvious reasons, cannot possibly play. The use of cash-filled suitcases, reminiscent of old Hollywood crime films, is due to the staunch refusal of the Palestinian Authority (PA) leadership in Ramallah to provide any proper banking and financial services to the “rebel held” area of Gaza. But even if Qatar does serve as the CFO (Chief Financial Officer) of this situation, it is the Egyptian leadership that retains the role of CEO (Chief Executive Officer) in full control of the operation as a whole. For obvious geo-political reasons, Hamas has no choice but to oblige the Egyptians.

This offers Israel several benefits in their own right (beyond the impact of achieving calm with Hamas). Israel’s clear and overt preference for an Egyptian role was indeed manifest throughout the rounds of fighting in 2008-2009 (“Cast Lead”), 2012 (“Pillar of Defense”) and 2014 (“Protective Edge”), and several smaller conflagrations since. Paradoxically, it was easier to enlist Muhammad Mursi’s regime in the effort in 2012 to curb Hamas. Israel put him in a situation in which, if he did not act to end the fighting, Israel would opt for an extensive ground maneuver, and he may have then faced the stark choice between acting as a responsible Egyptian leader (to sustain peace with Israel) and doing his duty as a Muslim Brother (to help and protect Hamas). Mursi indeed committed himself to the effort to restore calm, and won accolades from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for his role. Things were far murkier in 2014, due to the deeply-held mutual hatred between Hamas and Egyptian President Fattah el-Sisi’s regime – yet at the end it was again Egyptian mediation that played a key role. Today, the Egyptian administration has developed a sophisticated and effective approach combining rewards for the Hamas leadership with significant leverages.

The Bilateral Relationship

For Israel, it is of primary importance to broaden cooperation with Egypt. The bilateral relationship has shown remarkable resilience over 40 years, through significant tests and moments of crisis. It held firm despite regional events, such as the Israeli raid on Iraq’s nuclear facility in 1981, the Lebanon War in 1982, the Palestinian uprising of 1987-1990, the failure of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, the second intifada violence that erupted in 2000, and the rounds of fighting ever since; and despite the internal turmoil in Egypt after Sadat’s assassination and again since Tahrir Square in 2011 and the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. At the root of the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty lies an Egyptian awareness of Israel’s military might; but it is also bolstered by common interests and common challenges.

Today, the relationship has reached new heights, due to the common stand against terror in Sinai on one hand, and against Turkish subversion in the eastern Mediterranean on the other. With a partnership in restoring calm in Gaza, and in an age of integration in the field of energy supply, there may even some change in the generally shrill anti-Israel atmosphere in the Egyptian public domain. In this respect, the creation, in Cairo, of the EMGF – the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, bringing together Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Cyprus, Greece and Italy – is another step in that direction.

At the same time, the mediation is of great importance for Egypt itself. And again, Israel has an interest in anything that the Egyptians themselves see as conducive to their stability and to the chances of economic growth. A severe deterioration in the situation in Gaza, and a level of distress that may lead to pressure to throw the border open, are viewed in Cairo as a nightmare. The last thing that Egypt needs is millions more mouths to feed. Beyond that, the growing grip by Egyptian intelligence on events in Gaza can serve to force the Palestinian terror groups to cease and desist from all aid to the “Sinai Province” (muhafazat sina’) of ISIL (the Islamic State in the Levant, another name for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) and other subversive elements in the peninsula. Such support from within the Strip had previously played a role, which the Egyptians are well aware of, in the rise of these groups, which conduct a murderous and ruthless campaign against the Egyptian forces and against local tribal elements that dared to stand against ISIL. At present, Egypt seems to have achieved an effective deterrence against further Palestinian support for terror groups in Sinai.

Egypt in the Eyes of the West

At the level of ideas and symbols, the political leadership and the policy professionals in Egypt have long been committed to the concept of “Egypt’s Role” (Dawr Masr, in Arabic) in international affairs: namely, the senior position in the Arab and regional context, which among other things reflects their open access to all players – including Israel. They use this role to conduct grand diplomatic bids that would bolster Egypt’s standing and utility as an indispensable factor – both in the eyes of the West as well as her own Arab allies and donors. This becomes more important in the face of sharp criticism being hurled at Sisi’s regime by elements in the U.S. Congress and some European circles, over the issue of human rights abuses. By contributing to a reasonable conflict management, and avoiding crisis deterioration and bloodshed, Egypt thus enhances her historic role. At a time of unprecedented strategic affinity with the Egyptian leadership, Israel shares (if indirectly) Egypt’s interests in this respect as well.

There is also a major consideration that goes beyond the bilateral dimension. Under present circumstances, the entire region now witnesses a “resistance” movement with a jihadi pretense like Hamas (and at its side, a typical proxy of Iran, Palestinian Islamic Jihad) finding itself again and again seeking the help and relying upon the power and influence of a nation such as Egypt. This, even though Sisi is a sworn enemy, at the ideological and strategic levels, of Islamism in all its forms. Sisi’s speech at al-Azhar University, on January 1, 2015, remains a formative text of the direct confrontation against the intellectual deviation from the proper path of Islam, a deviant interpretation put forward by the Muslim Brotherhood (including Hamas as an offshoot of the movement) as well as by al-Qaeda, ISIL and their ilk.

Eroding the Myth

Over time, the combination of Israeli pressures, a deterrent effect (even if limited and fragile) and intense Egyptian engagement, all help in eroding the myth of the jihadi “resistance.” The efforts the Hamas leadership has been putting in for a year now are overtly designed to extract more material gains. As such, they also raise – in a certain sense – question marks about the movement’s ideological commitment to jihad at all costs. Thus, the very reliance upon Egypt, at times of crisis and distress, may indicate that in the regional power struggle between ideological camps, the Islamists are not quite sure that they still have the upper hand.

None of this should bind Israel’s hands if Hamas and the other terror groups re-ignite and resume their large-scale provocations. Restoring deterrence and reinforcing it are much more important duties than the diplomatic interest vis-à-vis Egypt. However, as long as all activities are part of the ongoing pattern of the last 12 months – in which Egypt plays a major role in trying to (literally) lower the flames, including the incendiary kites and the explosive balloons Palestinians have sent over the fence with Israel – Israelis have an interest in furthering Egypt’s influence, in the context of better “conflict management.”

This present pattern also helps in managing (and indeed perpetuating) the separation of Gaza from the PA – which currently serves Israel’s interests. The Egyptians continue to pay lip service to the hopeless “reconciliation” between Fatah and Hamas. But this is an effort doomed to fail. For Israel, in the foreseeable future, the present level of Hamas’s dependence upon Egyptian influence from outside is distinctly better than some of the alternative scenarios. This includes the idea (that some Israelis had toyed with) of Egypt exercising direct sovereignty in Gaza. The Egyptians have shown no interest of any sort and would reject it out of hand. For Israel, too, this would entail an unacceptable risk. To rule in Gaza, the Egyptians would need to station a large component of its modern, mobile military within a short drive from the heart of Israel.

The present pattern, despite its painful cost, is a better choice in term of the balance of power.

Col. (Res.) Eran Lerman, Ph.D.,  is Vice President of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security (JISS), where this article first appeared as a policy paper.