Across The Border: Israeli Views On Egypt’s Presidential Election

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The Israeli media has been closely following the Egyptian presidential campaign in the lead up to polling on 26/27 May. The views that are being voiced, though, are solely those of columnists and private individuals. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has instructed Israeli government officials not to meddle in the issue for fear of triggering adverse reactions.

Some Israeli diplomatic officials have addressed the question, but with caution. When the electronic edition of Yediot Aharanot asked former Israeli ambassador to Cairo Jacob Amitai whether he had met with presidential candidate Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi while in Egypt, Amitai responded, “Anyone who wants to succeed in his diplomatic post in Cairo has to know the value of silence and not divulge who he meets with.”

Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak has directly addressed the subject of Egypt’s political leadership on two occasions. The first occurred in the post-3 July period when, in an interview with CNN, Barak urged the “free world” to support El-Sisi and Mohamed ElBaradei, which clearly implied that he supported the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood. The second occasion took place three weeks ago at a conference organised by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in which he stressed the need for the US and other governments to support El-Sisi. His point was clear: “secularist” Egypt was doing all it could to turn over the “theocratic” page which was why it needed to have a “shaved face” with a US education in the president’s office rather than a “bearded face,” even though the latter, i.e. Morsi, had been educated in the US.

Although El-Sisi has a rival — Hamdeen Sabahi — the Israeli media has no doubts who will emerge the winner. The Times of Israel, for example, spoke of the “strongman in Egypt” much in the same spirit as a headline in the Lebanese Akhbar proclaiming “The president stands for office.” Writing at the time that El-Sisi announced his nomination, The Times said, “In a country in which all the presidents have hailed from the army apart from the deposed Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, El-Sisi is regarded as the strong man who can restore stability to Egypt which has been repeatedly rocked by crises that have caused the numbers of tourists to plunge since the revolution that overthrew the Mubarak regime in 2011.” The newspaper added that the former army commander intended to capitalise on his military image, as could be seen in the televised address in which he pledged “to keep up the battle every day until Egypt is free of terrorism.”

Most Israeli media see Sabahi as an important political figure in Egypt but not in an executive position. Indeed, Sabahi himself has essentially confirmed this. In a number of interviews with the press he has stated he will not seek an executive position if he loses the election. In opposition Sabahi will be able to sweep the rug from beneath the feet of the conventional opposition of the past which had been dominated by the ultraconservative right, specifically the Salafist trend. As for the Salafist Nour Party, it has yet to clarify the role it will play in the future even though it has come out in support of El-Sisi in the campaign.

Israeli affairs expert Said Okasha observes that the Israeli media is closely monitoring statements by both El-Sisi and Sabahi and comments on those that have implications regarding the policies they would pursue toward Israel if elected.

In the opinion of many Israeli sources Sabahi, noted for his Nasserist outlook, would be unlikely to improve relations with Israel. Sabahi has stated that he would strive to amend the Camp David peace treaty and that he would not receive Israeli officials in Cairo if elected president. In April the Jerusalem Post cited earlier statements by Sabahi in support of Hamas and the “resistance option.” Many Israeli analysts say there are signs that Sabahi, if elected, would usher in a period of protracted tensions in Egyptian-Israeli elections.

Some Israeli commentators, however, hold that because of the virtual certainty of an El-Sisi victory there is no reason for Israelis to worry about what Sabahi will or will not do. These commentators are aware that Egyptian public opinion, at present, does not have the luxury to promote revolutionary stances on foreign policy questions given the country’s economic straits.

It has also been noted that Sabahi lacks expertise in diplomacy and as a statesman. In the unlikely event he were elected he might be caught in the type of situations that occurred with Morsi who, in accordance with protocol, sent a congratulatory note to Perez in spite of the Muslim Brotherhood’s history of hostile rhetoric toward Israel.

Many Israeli think tanks tried to probe into El-Sisi’s character and political future even before he decided to field himself for president. In a report issued by the Jerusalem Institute for Foreign Studies the former deputy head of military intelligence Jacob Niria observes that Egyptians regard El-Sisi as a spiritual heir to Nasser and the man who rescued Egypt from the Muslim Brothers.

Israeli perceptions of El-Sisi and the future, as reflected in the Israeli media, have been largely shaped by the lens of developments on the southern front, i.e. the border with Sinai and the progress of military operations there. In general, the Israeli press agrees that the Egyptian army has made considerable inroads in its battle against jihadist groups. One also senses general approval of developments with respect to Hamas and its relationship with Egypt’s new rulers. The nearly 180 degree shift in that relationship since the end of Brotherhood rule was manifested in a judicial ruling against Hamas and the Interior Ministry’s decision to strip thousands of Hamas elements, including figures in the upper echelons of the leadership such as political bureau member Mahmoud Al-Zahhar, of the Egyptian citizenship they had obtained under the Morsi government.

It is noteworthy in this regard that, when asked whether Hamas was an enemy of Egypt, El-Sisi chose to remain silent. He was, however, careful to disassociate developments in the Egyptian relationship with Hamas from the Palestinian cause as a whole. “I want to tell Egyptians, don’t let the situation and mood that is taking shape toward Hamas affect your historical position with respect to the Palestinian cause,” El-Sisi said.

The most crucial concern to Israel is the future of Egypt’s relations with Iran. According to many military and strategic analysts in Egypt Iran does not want a military rival at the regional level. One military source says Tehran has tried “to wreak attrition on the army in Egypt through its relationship with the Palestinian factions and by exploiting the security vacuum during the first revolutionary phase.” Much of the Israeli media believes that Cairo’s relationship with Tehran will not revert to its condition under Mubarak and that the current government is remedying the effects of Egypt’s relationship with Iran under Muslim Brotherhood rule.

An earlier report by the Jerusalem Centre observed that financial aid to Egypt from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, after the US reduced its military aid, told sent the message to Washington that Egypt may no longer need US aid with strings attached. Saudi Arabia and the UAE were the first countries to understand the nature of the change in Egypt. “They also see in El-Sisi a likely ally and guardian against the growing Iranian threat in the Gulf at a time when the US is seeking to rebuild its relationship with Iran.”

The two candidates have inevitably been asked their opinions on the Camp David peace accord and the Israeli media — equally inevitably — seeks to analyse their responses. Both candidates agree on the need for Egypt to respect its international treaties and obligations. Sabahi, however, has stressed amendments to the security annex, especially provisions pertaining to the deployment of Egyptian forces in Sinai. This is a significant shift in position for a candidate who previously held that the future of the accord should be determined by parliament. El-Sisi, for his part, is familiar with the details of the security and military provisions of the accord in his capacity as a military commander and then as minister of defence. He has not addressed the question of amending the protocols, in spite of the fact many military experts argue in favour of such an effort. Perhaps El-Sisi has taken into account the flexibility Israel has been showing recently. It made no objections when the Egyptian army moved into parts of Sinai in which they had not been previously deployed. The Israeli press has picked up on this question of flexibility with respect to the security protocols in connection with its assessment of the successes that the Egyptian army has achieved in Sinai.

El-Sisi’s reticence on the question of the Camp David annexes should not be taken as indication of a willingness to appease Israel. Perhaps the clearest indication of his position is a statement in which he said that he would not visit Israel until there was a Palestinian state with its capital in Jerusalem. Some have noted that he said “Jerusalem” rather than “East Jerusalem”. He has also said that he will not receive an Israeli prime minister unless Israel makes concessions to the Palestinians in the peace talks.

El-Sisi’s positions reflect the Egyptian military creed which holds that Egypt cannot depend solely on its peace agreement with Israel which, if no longer a major enemy, remains a major potential enemy. After all, “this is a state with which Egypt engaged in full-fledged war on numerous occasions since the occupation of Palestine in 1948,” says former director of the Military Studies Centre General Alaa Ezzeddin.

“Israel was on the verge of intervening in Sinai because of the proliferation of terrorist groups there. However, the Egyptian army moved to forestall such a prospect, not in order to register a position but because the army’s foremost duty is to defend Egypt’s borders and land. In addition, the army passes on to each succeeding generation the story of how it regained that land, how the last Israeli soldier left and how important it is that no Israeli soldier ever sets foot on it again.”

In short, Israel is drawing up its plans and projections on the premise that Egypt’s next president will be a leader who enjoys confidence at home and in the region. While there may remain some areas of tension in Egypt’s relations abroad, the signs are that these problems will be resolved with time. Meanwhile, the security coordination that continues in accordance with the Camp David accords should dispel any fears of major tensions between Cairo and Tel Aviv. What is important from the latter’s perspective is that Egypt remains stable so that it can tighten its grip over the sources of terrorism and, simultaneously, overcome the mounting economic crisis. As for Egypt, the likelihood is that it will return to the “cold peace” that has long prevailed with Israel, but tempered with the unconventional understandings that have taken shape regarding the handling of the Camp David protocols which remains rigid in terms of text but has grown flexible in practice

Source : Ahram online