Egypt last week marked Revolution Day, the day commemorating the 1952 Free Officers' revolt that toppled the playboy King Farouk. Next door in Israel, the Egyptian embassy threw a party.
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife attended, as did its president. Flags of both nations flew; anthems of both were sung. Balloons in the Egyptian colors were strewn over the embassy pool, and a woman dressed like Cleopatra delivered remarks. It was the first time in six years that Egypt's embassy in Tel Aviv publicly marked the event.
It was an extraordinary gesture, and these are extraordinary times in the relationship between two of Washington's keystone allies in the Eastern Mediterranean. Two weeks prior, Sameh Shoukry became the first Egyptian foreign minister in nine years to visit Israel — breaking years of unwritten government protocol that ties with the Jewish state would be handled by the intelligence services.
While there, he also broke another of Cairo's unwritten rules: the one against holding state meetings in that most contentious city, Jerusalem. The two met for two hours, Egypt's Foreign Ministry said on its Arabic Facebook page, then continued the chat at the prime minister's residence, where they even took in some of the Euro soccer championship.
Since the 2011 ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak, links between Cairo and Jerusalem have been centered on securing the Sinai Peninsula and on the Gaza Strip. In Sinai, an Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) affiliate has waged a five-year insurgency that has killed at least 700 people — primarily Egyptian servicemen and police, but also some Israelis — and bilateral intel-sharing is intimate.
Next door to Sinai in Gaza, the ruling Hamas movement is not only sworn to Israel's destruction but is cooperating with Sinai militants and enriching them through a tunnel economy. And Hamas is the Palestinian spinoff of the Muslim Brotherhood, the group that Cairo views as the single greatest danger to its national security.
In decades past, Israeli leaders saw Egypt they way they now do Iran: the existential threat around which virtually all other strategy revolved. The 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty ended the state of war between them, but persistent Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed and Egyptians' widespread ire for the Jewish state meant peace was frosty. Commerce and tourism have remained minimal, and matters of security and diplomacy have generally been conducted in private.
Now, ever so gradually, that is starting to change. Egypt now fears its traditionally formidable regional clout is on the wane — amid crises in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, its role is miniscule compared to regional heavyweights Saudi Arabia and Iran. On the Israeli-Palestinian front, by contrast, it is a tier-one player on matters of both war and peace. Cairo brokered cease-fires to the last two Israel-Hamas wars, in 2012 and 2014, and as Washington steps aside as Middle East peace mediator, both Israeli and Palestinian leaders appear to prefer Cairo to would-be intermediaries like France.
At the same time, Egypt sees Israel on a diplomatic and economic roll, and it wants in. In June, the Israelis reconciled with Turkey, meaning Ankara is now a direct competitor with Egypt for a deal to deliver Israel's natural gas to Europe. Then last month, Netanyahu completed a four-nation tour in Egypt's backyard of East Africa, announcing new business ventures at each stop (including Ethiopia, with which the Egyptians are locked in a dispute over its plans to build a Nile dam). Cairo chafes at seeing its own influence stagnate on the African continent while its eastern neighbor cashes in.
More broadly, both Cairo and Jerusalem fear Washington is disengaging from the Middle East militarily and diplomatically. Amid the shared threats posed by an emboldened Islamic Republic, a determined ISIS and a continuing Hamas threat, old enmities appear to be taking a backseat.
The tightening ties between Egypt and Israel are an increasingly rare example of America's Middle Eastern allies cooperating to mutual benefit. With the region roiled by civil wars in Syria and Iraq, and a post-coup purge in Turkey, the Cairo-Jerusalem partnership is a rare piece of good news in a region offering precious little of it.
Kessler is deputy director for research at Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
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