- By Janine ZachariaJanine Zacharia, formerly the Washington bureau chief for the Jerusalem Post, is the State Department correspondent for Bloomberg News.
"People underestimate the fact that this relationship [with Israel] is anchored in mutual interest,” an Egyptian diplomat told me last week when I asked about the deal that finally released Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit from Hamas captivity. "Nobody has an interest in seeing it break down."
Those mutual interests have not been in great evidence since the fall of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in February. Months of crisis, from a cross-border Israeli raid which killed six Egyptian soldiers to the ransacking of the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, have dominated the bilateral agenda. But Egypt’s role in brokering the exchange of Shalit for over a thousand Palestinian prisoners demonstrated that fears of a major break between Egypt and Israel have been wildly overstated.
While the Israeli government, Hamas, and other regional actors did their part, there is no question that Egypt played the pivotal role in finally resolving the Shalit affair. Cairo mediated the deal, arranged for Shalit’s safe return to Israel, and organized the flights for the 40 Palestinian prisoners who were sent into exile in Turkey, Qatar, and Syria. Egyptian diplomats are understandably proud of their accomplishment. Egypt, which considers itself the most important Arab state, demonstrated for the first time in many years that it could achieve a difficult diplomatic objective. Despite the anti-Israel rhetoric of Egyptian politicians playing to the Cairo crowds as they prepare for parliamentary elections slated to take place next month, Shalit’s release showed that Israeli-Egyptian ties are surviving, even thriving, in the post-Mubarak era.
Cairo’s role in Shalit’s release came at a time of deep uncertainty and doubts about the future of Egypt’s relationship with Israel. After Palestinians infiltrated from Egypt and killed eight Israelis this past August and Israeli forces killed six Egyptian border guards in a counter-raid, the Egyptian-Israeli relationship appeared to be in crisis. Egyptian presidential candidate Amr Moussa threatened, "Israel should know that the era in which our sons are killed without a harsh response on our part is over for good." The looting of the Israeli embassy in Cairo a few weeks later only deepened Israel’s concerns. Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf and the Egyptian Arab League Secretary General Nabil el-Araby both said the Camp David peace treaty wasn’t "sacred” and may have to be altered. Many Israelis worry about the loss of long-time friends in Cairo, and fear that greater democracy in Egypt will empower hostile voices and potentially place the 32-year old peace accord in peril.
It wasn’t out of love for Israel that Egypt mediated Shalit’s release. Egypt’s military sees a vital self interest in keeping the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty robust. Egypt has its own security interests. Its primary concerns are preserving stability in Gaza, with which it shares a border, and maintaining order in the Sinai, where it has sought to stop smuggling. Another objective of Egypt’s interim military leadership is to ease pressure at home, where demonstrators have sharply criticized the current government for undercutting democracy. "The agreement and the deal are a medal on Egypt’s chest to be added to the several medals that it deservedly earned for its ongoing defense and support of the Palestinian cause," one commentator wrote in Al-Akhbar, Egypt’s mass-circulation, pro-government daily.
Even more important is Egypt’s desire to reassure the United States that it remains a reliable regional partner. Just three weeks before Shalit’s release, Egypt’s foreign minister, Mohamed Amr, told the Associated Press, that Egypt was seeking ways to strengthen its "strategic relationship" with the United States, and pledged that Egypt remained committed to the peace treaty with Israel, despite the comments by the Prime Minister and the Arab League Secretary General to the contrary. The U.S. Congress has been making highly public noises about conditioning or reducing military aid to Egypt, a threat that the Egyptian military and its lobbyists take very seriously. President Barack Obama called Egypt’s de facto leader, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, on Monday to push the military to end emergency law and military trials, and to advance the date for presidential elections. The Egyptian military believes that demonstrating its solid ties with Israel is key to blunting such U.S. pressure.
In Israel, Egypt’s positive role in bringing to close what was nothing short of a national trauma, was sadly marred by an opportunistic television interview with Shalit moments after his transfer from Hamas’s hands to Egyptian custody. The interview by an overeager Egyptian broadcast journalist, which appeared to catch the frail, overwhelmed, Shalit, off-guard, prompted complaints from Israel’s leadership. But Israelis should not let that incident detract from the more important lesson here — their fears of a hostile new Egypt have not come to pass.
The Shalit deal demonstrates that a post-Mubarak Egypt can be more effective in dealing with issues that concern Israelis. On Shalit himself, dialogue with the new Egyptian leadership achieved what five years discussions with Mubarak and his former, long-time envoy on Israeli-Palestinian issues, Omar Suleiman, could not.
The stalemated reconciliation talks between the Palestinian factions of Hamas and its rival Fatah are Egypt’s likely next target. Hamas leader Khaled Meshal was just in Cairo. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was there this past weekend. Previous talks between the two parties went nowhere under Mubarak, who Hamas perceived as siding too heavily with Fatah. But given Hamas’s willingness to trust Egypt’s mediation of the Shalit deal, it might also trust Egypt’s new leaders to draft a fair power-sharing deal with Fatah. This might reunite the two factions, helping to bring stability to the Palestinian territories while also reestablishing Egypt’s credentials as the main regional powerbroker on Palestinian and Israeli issues.
If Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were to recognize the value of Cairo’s new leverage, opportunities abound. One prospect is back-channel talks that could firm up any ceasefire with Hamas. Even more ambitious, would be looking to Egypt to mediate any new peace talks. Such dialogue with Egypt on issues of mutual interest would not only stabilize the Israel-Gaza front. It would help solidify Israel’s relationship with its most important Arab ally.
Janine Zacharia is former Jerusalem bureau chief for the Washington Post and currently the Carlos Kelly McClatchy visiting lecturer at Stanford University.