Canceling Out The 'Background Noise' On Egypt-Israel Relations

Apr 29, 2012
Originally published on May 6, 2012 4:05 am

By ending a historic gas contract with Israel, is Egypt laying the groundwork for a fundamental shift in relations? Not quite, says Rob Malley of the International Crisis Group.

Malley, program director for the Middle East and North Africa, talks to NPR's David Greene on Weekend Edition about last week's announcement, which raised questions of political rifts. Malley says:

"What we're seeing right now is a lot of noise, but no real change, partly because — if not essentially because — both the Israelis and the Egyptian security establishment believe that the relationship is critical for both of them."

Israel and Egypt signed the historic Camp David peace treaty in 1979, and The Associated Press reports:

"While relations have never been particularly warm, the quiet border has been critical for the security of the two neighbors. Egyptian energy exports to Israel and other business ties have helped keep the peace."

NPR's Sheera Frenkel reports for Weekend Edition that the gas deal was signed in 2005 and intended to last for at least 15 years. Reuters calls it "the most significant economic agreement to follow" the 1979 treaty and Jordan's treaty with Israel in 1994.

Israel has been getting about 40 percent of its gas from Egypt, according to the AP, yet Egypt said last Sunday that it was ending the gas contract. Government spokespersons in both Israel and Egypt are trying to downplay the issue as a dispute between two companies rather than a threat to the peace treaty, Frenkel reports.

The head of Egypt's Petroleum Authority said the move was economic, the state-run Ahram Online says, citing "several late Israeli payments" as the reason.

The economics behind the deal, though, are "highly controversial in Egypt," CNN reports, "in light of allegations that Egyptian government officials enriched themselves on the deal and that Israel has paid below-market prices for the gas."

Recent disruptions in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula have also put the deal under a magnifying glass, The Los Angeles Times notes:

"The gas deal has been under scrutiny for months and shipments were interrupted more than a dozen times because of sabotage and explosions along the pipeline through the Sinai Peninsula."

Frenkel says many in Israel are wondering if peace with Egypt can be maintained. She spoke with Zvi Mazel, Israel's former ambassador to Egypt. After time as a diplomat in Cairo following the Camp David treaty, Mazel returned as ambassador in 1996 and served until 2001. He worked on the negotiations that led to the gas deal, Frenkel says. He tells Frenkel:

"I have here the agreement, signed between the government of Egypt and Israel that backed the guarantee to Israel that gas will continue to stream to flow to Israel at any cost."

But the gas is not the biggest issue, he tells Frenkel, the peace deal is:

"It seems like a bad omen for the future. It's after all the problems that we had between us and Egypt, after the ouster of [President Hosni] Mubarak, now we see the first cancellation of a treaty."

Daniel Byman, a professor at Georgetown University, tells Foreign Policy he predicts worsening political relations — though not fighting — between the countries. In an email, Byman says, "I think it signals that the cold peace will get even colder."

Malley of the International Crisis Group is unmoved by remarks like those of the Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, who said Egypt has become a greater threat than Iran, as Reuters and others have reported. This is not a step toward ending the Camp David peace treaty, Malley says.

"For now [the treaty is] still safe, and I think we have to distinguish between some of the background noise and what are the real interests of the parties involved. You're gonna hear a lot — you heard foreign minister Lieberman, you're gonna hear Egyptians saying things. But deep down, neither Israel nor the Egyptian military nor even the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has an interest in undermining relations with Israel, [or] relations with the United States, because all prefer stability."

That said, even more changes are soon to come for Egypt, Malley says. The first presidential elections since Mubarak's ouster are next month.

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So, just how precarious is the current relationship between Egypt and Israel? We've asked Rob Malley of the International Crisis Group to come in and help us explore that issue with us. He's the program director for the Middle East and North Africa. Rob, welcome back.


GREENE: Stability between Egypt and Israel - I mean, it's long been a bedrock in what's an incredibly volatile part of the world. Are we witnessing some sort of fundamental shift in that relationship?

MALLEY: Not yet. I mean, what we're seeing right now is a lot of noise but no real change, partly because, if not essentially because, both Israelis and the Egyptian security establishment believe that the relationship is critical for both of them. So, they're not about to endanger it. But - and it's a big but because of what, everything that's happening in the region is leading towards greater uncertainty, greater confusion. There are going to be changes in Egypt. There have been changes but they haven't yet been translated into a shift in foreign policy.

GREENE: Let's talk about some of that noise, the rhetoric that we've been hearing from both sides. We have Israel's foreign minister saying that Egypt is a greater threat to Israel than Iran. I mean, that is pretty incendiary. How did you interpret that?

MALLEY: If you or I had a - were given a penny for every time the foreign minister said something incendiary, neither one would have the job we currently do. But the one thing about foreign minister Lieberman is that he scratches where it itches. In other words, when he speaks about something, it resonates with the Israeli public and it is indicative of a feeling that the Israeli public has. So, when he says that he's scared about the future of Egyptian-Israeli relations, he's not really saying, or he's not really representing, a panic among Israeli officials that they think that tomorrow something's going to change and the Camp David Accord is going to be scrapped. What he's saying is we look at Egypt, we don't know where things are headed and we don't like what we see in the Sinai, where there's a security vacuum. We don't like what we hear from some Egyptian politicians, so we got to be careful.

GREENE: You mentioned, of course, the Camp David Accords, which in 1979 led to the peace treaty between these two countries. On the Egypt side, there was one member of the Muslim Brotherhood who was quoted as saying that safety along the Israel-Egypt border in Sinai cannot be maintained under the current requirements in Camp David. Is that the beginning of sort of tinkering away at that accord or is that peace treaty still safe?

MALLEY: For now, it's still safe. And I think we have to distinguish between some of the background noise and what are the real interests of the parties involved. You're going to hear a lot. You've heard foreign minister Lieberman. You're going to hear Egyptians saying things. But deep down, neither Israel nor the Egyptian military, nor even the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has an interest in undermining relations with Israel, relations with the United States because all prefer stability. And for the Muslim Brotherhood in particular, what they want to do is have a chance at governing and they want to have a chance at succeeding at governing. And in order to do that, they need stability, they need economic assistance from the U.S. They can't afford to have a conflict at their borders. So, I think there's going to be some of these noises. But, as I said, a lot of it is relatively insignificant.

GREENE: Well, Rob, you say things are sort of holding together for now and we're waiting for changes to come. Egypt has the first presidential election since the fall of Hosni Mubarak coming this May and maybe a runoff in June. I mean, what moment, what type of event are you looking for when we might bring you into this studio and you would say now we have a real problem, now there's really a moment of concern in this relationship?

MALLEY: The most likely scenario in my view is if the Muslim Brotherhood Islamists really come to power and they face what I think inevitably they will face: great difficulties on the economic field, great difficulties in running the country in terms of security and they start facing a discontented, dissatisfied population, which is going to ask them, what have you done for us? That's when I think you might see the Muslim Brotherhood, the leadership saying we need to appeal to our constituency, either by going back with some rigorous sort of the old-fashioned social issues or by distracting the population by turning them to pay attention to foreign policy and that's when they might start escalating the rhetoric when it comes to Israel. That's one scenario that I think one would worry about. The other scenario is if something were to happen in Gaza, and whether it's initiated by Israel or by Hamas - the Islamist movement that controls Gaza - I think under the circumstances where you have public opinion in Egypt that matters today far more than it has in the recent decades, where you might have the Muslim Brotherhood controlling the government and perhaps the presidency, Egypt will not be able to sit idly by as it has on past occasions if Israel were to start attacking Gaza in response to the rocket attack or simply as a preemptive move. And that could really endanger the relationship.

GREENE: Rob Malley is the program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group. Rob, thanks so much, as always, for coming in.

MALLEY: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.