Adult Ed Lecture and Discussion – Led by Martin Charwat on 11/10/16

Israel/Egypt- History of Relations
Outline notes by Martin Charwat

Circles of Influence/circles of concern:

Egypt in 1948 had not yet completely shorn off its control by Great Britain. Although nominally independent, Britain still had troops stationed in the Suez Canal Zone and exerted considerable influence over Egypt’s ruler, King Farouk. Egypt, nonetheless, was the most influential state in the Arab world, with powerful influence over its immediate neighbors, Libya to its west and Sudan to its south. Over the following years, Egypt’s power and reach grew, as it became one of the founding members of the group of nonaligned stated, including Indonesia and Yugoslavia. Courted by the Soviet Union, it managed to end British control of the Canal by 1954 and extend its influence to Syria, with which it briefly merged to form the United Arab Republic. Both Egypt and Israel were enmeshed in the Cold War, with Egypt seeking and accepting financial and military aid from the Soviet Union and its allies in the 1950’s. In the 1960’s Egypt fought a bloody, inconclusive war in Yemen. It was a major foe of Israel, losing to it in wars in 1948, 1956, and 1967 and then finally fighting pretty much to a draw in 1973.

It was a supporter of the Palestinian cause – until it reached a peace deal with Israel in 1979, after which its support for the Palestinians waned, and Egypt was expelled from the Arab League. It gained support from the United States, however, including annual receipt of money for its armed forces and for development aid as a result of its signing the Camp David accords in 1979. Egypt’s links to the U.S. were further strengthened as a result of its help in expelling Iraqi troops from Kuwait in 1991. Because of its ties to the never regained its central role in Arab affairs, as its ties to the U.S. made it unpopular in the wider Arab world.

Over the next decades, it largely stagnated, even as its population soared. Tourism and revenues from the Suez Canal kept it afloat, but barely. Growing Islamic militancy and terrorism took their toll on tourism, and a decline in oil shipments through the Canal as a result of a worldwide economic slowdown hurt revenues further, forcing Egypt to rely on contributions from the Gulf Arab states and Saudi Arabia. This dependence is resented by both the Egyptians and their benefactors, as well, and has reduced Egypt’s clout in the Arab world.
Israel went through a series of challenges from its inception. At its birth in 1948, it had to defend itself against an uncoordinated gaggle of Arab armies from Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, which it defeated. In the aftermath of its independence, Israel was weak and isolated, surrounded by enemy states and Palestinians who were furious that they and their Arab allies were unable to defeat the Israelis and secure a state of their own. Israel had to take in a massive influx of Jews who were expelled from Arab lands, – not only those of its neighbors, but also Yemen, Morocco, and Tunisia, to name but a few.

It had few supporters or allies among the nations of Europe, though West Germany was a notable exception, providing substantial money transfers in the form of wartime reparations. France was a more reluctant ally, but it helped Israel to develop its atomic energy, including, presumably atomic weapons. The United States, while the first to recognize Israel’s existence, was largely cool to it at first and highly critical of its 1956 attack on Egypt along with France and Great Britain, which the U.S. saw as an attempt to reimpose colonialism and as being inimical to its own Cold War interests.
As many nations in Africa and Asia obtained their independence in the 1950’s and 1960’s, Israel made a major push to develop close relations with them, in order to foster trade and obtain their votes in the United Nations. Israel helped many of them with agricultural development knowhow and supplies, gaining their support. Egypt sought to counter this influence by painting itself as a supporter of African liberation and as a leader of the non-aligned nations in contrast to Israel, which it sought to paint as a tool of the west. Following the Yom Kippur War of 1973 and the Arab oil boycott, much of Israel’s support among the newly independent nations weakened, as the quintupling of the price of fuel hit these developing countries hard, for which they blamed Israel. After 1994, Israel’s failure to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians rankled the developing world, where support for the Palestinians is strong. Its settlement policies are strongly criticized by most Europeans. As a result, by 2016, Israel’s relations with the rest of the world have come full circle: it finds itself again largely isolated, with unremitting hostility from most of the Arab world and Iran and its ally, Hezbollah, and strong but fraying support in the U.S., with peaceful but cool relations between itself and Egypt and Jordan.
Overarching observations:

In the beginning of Israel’s existence, Egypt was the greatest menace to Israel, as it had the largest army, posed a danger to the heartland of Israel, and supported the Fedayeen Palestinian Arab fighters in Gaza in their raids and attacks in Israel. Under Nasser, Egypt continued to be the main enemy of Israel among all of the Arab states through the 1956 War in which Israel combined with France and Great Britain in attacking Sinai and the Suez Canal, and in the 1967 Yom Kippur War, likewise precipitated by Nasser. Finally, in the apocalyptic 1973 Yom Kippur war, with Sadat at the helm, Egyptian forces crossed the Suez Canal and clobbered the Israelis, at least at first. But since 1979, Egypt and Israel have been at peace, and although relations have not been warm, they have not been warlike, either.

Since the early 1950’s and with but a brief period of civilian rule by an Islamist government, Egypt’s political life has been dominated by a single party headed by a military man. This has meant that its leaders have been able to rule with minimal parliamentary opposition, although unpopular measures, such as the removal of food and fuel subsidies, have often been met by massive street protests. With this exception, Egypt’s leaders have been able to push through their programs without having to compromise with minority parties or worry excessively about being voted out of office.

Since its inception as a state in 1948, Israel has had mostly civilians as Prime Ministers who have headed coalition governments and therefore have had to contend with a fractious political environment. Unlike Egypt, three of whose rulers – Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak, experienced long terms of office, Israel’s rulers, of whom there have been 12, rarely held office for more than a few years, except for the first, David Ben Gurion, and the current incumbent, Benjamin Netanyahu. All of these Israeli leaders have had to thread a delicate path through the political minefield in order to avoid losing support and losing office. This has often meant giving in to small, ideological factions, whose demands may have offended Israel’s broad center as well as overseas supporters.

Both Egypt and Israel lost leaders to assassins: Anwar Sadat was shot and killed by Islamists in the military who viewed him as a traitor for making a separate peace with the hated enemy, Israel, and for betraying the Palestinians; Yitzhak Rabin was shot by a right-wing religious zealot who, like many in Israel, believed that he was not committed to keeping Judea and Samaria on the West Bank as permanently part of Israel, that he did not support Jewish settlers there, and was weak in dealing with the Palestinians and their Arab supporters. Hosni Mubarak, who ruled Egypt for 30 years from 1981 until 2011, was not assassinated, but he was the victim of 6 attempts.

Neither Israel nor Egypt wanted a Palestinian state and both have worked against its creation. The massive exodus of Palestinians from Israel proper which occurred during and immediately following the creation of the State of Israel was the product both of a call from invading Arab armies to clear the way so that there would not be civilian Arab casualties caused by the invaders, AND of Israeli military action and terrorist acts committed by Israeli forces to spread fear and force them to flee. Many of these Palestinians took refuge in Gaza, which was administered by Egypt. Egypt didn’t know what to do with them. Most were housed in U.N.-run refugee camps. Egypt didn’t want to resettle them in Egypt proper and at first encouraged them to attack Israel, prompting Israeli counterattacks. When, finally, in the 1970’s and 1980’s the Palestinians developed a national organization, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, known as the PLO, the Egyptians did little to help it and the Israelis refused to negotiate with it or with its leader, Yasser Arafat. Indeed, the 1979 peace accord between Israel and Egypt marked in effect the abandonment of the Palestinians by Egypt, which opted for its own self-interest over its pan-Arab commitment to the Palestinian cause. As a result, Egypt was expelled for 10 years from the Arab League. Israel appreciated Egypt’s go-it-alone approach and has acted on it ever since.

The Camp David accords of 1979, marked a major shift in political orientation of both Egypt and Israel. Until at least until the mid-1970’s, Egypt had been a client of the Soviet Union, and Israel, although closer to the U.S. than to the Soviet Union, was somewhat held at arm’s length by the United States. Following the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, which Israel survived thanks to a massive arms lift from the U.S., Egypt was resupplied by the Soviet Union, and Israel worried that it would again face an Egyptian onslaught. But Sadat’s recognition that Egypt could not develop without reducing the crushing burden of arms expenditures led him to seek peace with Israel. The 1979 Camp David accords made both Egypt and Israel recipients of large annual cash and arms transfers from the U.S. in exchange for their willingness to make peace with each other. Over time, Egypt’s army came to rely on U.S. arms and, to an extent on U.S. military training. Israel, too relied on U.S. arms and developed its own arms industry, at times in partnership with the U.S. The U.S. may have believed that its money and arms gave it leverage over both of its client states, but it has not always worked out this way.

One instance in which it did was the 1990 Gulf War to drive Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi Army out of Kuwait. In that war, U.S. President Bush sought to assemble a coalition of states, including Arab states, to drive out the Iraqis. Egypt signed on and provided a sizeable contingent. Israel was scheduled to be on the receiving end of Scud missiles that Saddam threatened to rain down on Israeli cities. The U.S. desperately wanted to prevent the Israelis from retaliating, as this would have driven away the support of the Arab armies allying with the U.S. effort. So the U.S. promised to give priority to attacking the Iraqi missile sites targeting Israel and to provide Israel with U.S. Patriot missiles to shoot down incoming Scuds. While there was little damage done to Israel, following the war Israel felt that the U.S. “owed it” and asked for ever larger shipments of weapons, which was forthcoming. Egypt too, as a result of its participation, earned the good graces of the U.S. Was the commitment to “buy peace” open ended, and how much influence did the money buy?

The answer is that nations pursue what they perceive as their own national interests. When this means biting the hand that feeds them, well – so be it.
Even before 1994 when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO leader Yasser Arafat signed the so-called Oslo Agreement to end hostilities, the government of Israel has pursued a policy of supporting Israeli settlers to create new settlements and expand existing ones in what it calls Judea and Samaria and the Palestinians call the territory that they hope will be their future state. While the U.S. has criticized this policy, Israel has continued it almost unabated, repeatedly thumbing its nose at the U.S. Moreover, when the U.S. was preparing to sign a deal with Iran to reduce its ability to produce and deploy a nuclear weapon, a proposal the U.S viewed as enhancing Israel’s security but with which Netanyahu disagreed, Netanyahu came to the U.S. in 2015 and vehemently criticized the deal before the U.S. Congress. Egypt has protested Israel’s policies in the West Bank, albeit without threatening to break diplomatic relations with Israel or taking any steps to put military or economic pressure on Israel, not that it has much ability to do so any longer.

The Egyptian Tahrir Square uprising in 2011, which saw the overthrow of Egyptian President Mubarak by a combination of liberals, modernizers, and Islamists, ushered in a period of turmoil in Egypt and watchful waiting in Israel. The fact that the United States did not support its old ally, Mubarak, was viewed with loathing in Saudi Arabia, an ally of both. It may have shaken Israel, too – especially with the subsequent election of Mohammed Morsi, an Islamist and supporter of Hamas. Relations between Israel and Egypt worsened, as Egyptians began to question whether to break off diplomatic relations and reduce economic ties. Open anti-semitism began to rear its head in Egypt, and Hamas, which had been shunned by Mubarak, began to hope that a Morsi government would help it economically and even, perhaps militarily.
But Morsi did not have the support of the Egyptian army or the bureaucracy, which had been appointed by Mubarak, and stymied him at every opportunity. Before long, the army overthrew Morsi and began a crackdown on his supporters, jailing thousands. Meanwhile Israel watched and cheered from the sidelines.

With a new government in power, cooperation blossomed once again, with Egypt and Israel sharing intelligence on ISIS and other radical groups operating in Sinai and sealing tunnels from Egypt into Gaza. Hamas was once again in a vise, with Egypt pressing from one side, Israel from the others.

Egypt’s economy, meanwhile, tanked. Its dependence on revenues from tourism and the Suez Canal both took a hit, as terrorist incidents and reduced oil shipments combined in a perfect storm to force it to go begging to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, which propped it up with over $40B. Because the value of U.S. development aid and arms shipments amount to only about $2B per year, Egypt could afford to not pay nearly so much attention to the wishes of the U.S. as it had in the past. Ironically, Saudi Arabia’s generosity to Egypt has not won it much leverage in Egypt either, as Egypt’s President Sisi has taken the aid and in remarks released over WikiLeaks was heard to say that the Saudis were suckers and should be hit up for even more. As for Israel, in September it secured a 10-year $38B commitment from the U.S. to supply it with military hardware to preserve its military edge over presumed enemies. Since the conclusion of the agreement, Israel has announced plans for further settlement construction and has already broken ground.

Finally, currently, Egypt and Israel are both becoming less tolerant societies, with increasing restrictions on the press and civic society groups in both countries. Both Netanyahu and el-Sisi, the President of Egypt, have resisted calls to rein in their more hard line supporters. Egypt has required a wide array of civil society groups to forswear foreign funding and has curtailed their activities. Activists have been jailed, tortured, and silenced. Israel is making it more difficult for its domestic critics to monitor government actions in the occupied territories and to publicize such things as housing demolitions and water seizures. A prominent Israeli newspaper owned by U.S. casino magnate, Sheldon Adelson, is virtually a mouthpiece for the Netanyahu government and not only promotes its policies but editorializes against its critics.

In conclusion, Egypt and Israel are both states whose image and reality have changed greatly over 68 years. Egypt is not the colossus of the Arab world, dominating its discourse. It is an ailing, dependent. Israel is no longer David, but rather a powerful embattled Sparta, in a hostile environment which is viewed as lording it over Palestinians. Egypt has gone from being the chief threat to Israel’s existence to becoming its ally against Radical Islamists in the Sinai and Hamas in Gaza.

While Egypt’s political landscape was dominated by a single party with a few rulers, Israel had to deal with a multi-party system with many heads of state who have had to form fragile coalitions and effectuate compromises in order to govern. Both countries lost leaders who were advocates for peace to assassins who viewed these leaders as traitors willing to threaten ideological purity: a Palestine without an Israel or an Israel without a Palestine. Over the years, it became clear that neither Egypt nor Israel wanted a Palestinian state or was willing to make the sacrifices necessary to bring one into existence. While the 1979 Camp David accords effectively made Israel and Egypt client states of the United States, with the passage of time, the leverage that the U.S. had over each has declined, so that today neither one dances to the U.S. tune. The 2011 Arab Spring uprising in Egypt and the 2013 overthrow of the Islamist Government of Mohammed Morsi has led to enhanced security cooperation between Israel and Egypt against Islamists in Sinai and against Hamas in Gaza. Finally, Both Israel and Egypt are becoming less tolerant societies in terms of their willingness to brook opposition and dissent.

Martin Charwat
Nov. 10, 2016
Vassar Temple

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