A Review of Relations Between Israel and Egypt

Egypt’s relationship with Israel is complex and has changed considerably over the years. Like all other Arab countries, Egypt protested Israel’s creation at the expense of Palestine. Egypt refused to recognize the state of Israel until 1979. Egypt and Israel have engaged in four wars, the instigators varying from war-to-war. Today, they cooperate extensively, mainly on security issues.

Egypt resisted Zionist aspirations through its popular support (led by the Muslim Brotherhood) of the 1936 Arab Revolt. In 1948, when the first Arab-Israeli war broke out in response to Israel’s creation, Egypt took part in the Arab coalition to defeat Israel. The Arabs were ultimately defeated and the war had devastating effects for Palestinians as the Israelis expelled them from Israel and seized an amount of land that exceeded the area allotted from the U.N. partition.

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Egypt and Israel clashed once again in 1953 over the Suez Canal— a key shipping lane for the world over. Nasser sought to nationalize the canal as part of his nationalistic, pan-Arab rhetoric. Nasser closed the Suez Canal as well as the Straits of Tiran, a vital access point for natural gas and trade, to Israel. Israel invaded the Sinai with French and British support, only withdrawing after international and U.S. pressure.

Perhaps the most important of the Arab-Israeli conflicts is the 1967 War. Egypt deployed 100,000 soldiers to the Sinai Peninsula, signed a defense treaty with Jordan, and once again the closed the Straits of Tiran to Israel in preparation for an attack on Israel’s western border. Israel anticipated the attack, and preemptively bombed the Egyptian forces, chasing them back from the Sinai and completely destroying their air force. Israel then pivoted east and defeated Egyptian partners, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon. As a result of the war, Israel seized control of the territories of the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights among others. Egypt and all other Arab countries who were a part of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) then created an embargo against Israel and various other western countries (including the U.S.), creating a huge spike in oil prices.

The last war between Egypt and Israel was the 1973 war. Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on the Israelis during Yom Kippur, the holiest Jewish holiday, catching the Israelis off guard. Initially the Egyptians and Syrians were able to make territorial gains against the Israelis, but Israel eventually cut off the attacking forces and launched a counterattack of their own. A ceasefire was brokered with the mediation of the U.S. and Soviet Union. The war made Israel realize that it could not sustain continued animosity with its neighbors, and led them to the 1978 Camp David Accords and a peace treaty the following year. As part of the treaty, Israel withdrew from the Sinai with the condition that Egypt keep it demilitarized and recognize the state of Israel. Egypt’s recognition of Israel led to the expulsion of Egypt from the League of Arab States for what was viewed as a betrayal of the Palestinian cause.

Egypt and Israel have enjoyed peaceful, though not friendly, relations since the peace treaty. The 2011 revolution worried the Israelis, who were deprived of their old official channels of communication with the Egyptian government. Following the revolution, there was a takeover of the Embassy of Israel in Cairo by thousands of Egyptians. The takeover was in response to Israel’s accidental killing of Egyptian security forces in the Sinai Peninsula. The election of Morsi, a political Islamist, worried the Israelis further; however, Morsi held fast to all treaties that existed between the two nations. In fact, Morsi brokered a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in the 2012 conflict.

The Sisi regime has cooperated with Israel extensively, being called by The Economist “the most pro-Israel president Egypt has ever had.” Sisi has overseen the import of natural gas from Israel and has cooperated on security issues, specifically in the Sinai Peninsula where Egypt faces a growing insurgency involving the Islamic State and other violent extremists. A testament to the strength of the relationship is the fact that Israel easily approved the increased militarization of the Sinai so Egypt could fight its evolving insurgency.

Though cooperation between the two governments is a well-established fact in the region, there is still deep resentment of Israel among the Egyptian people. According to a public opinion poll conducted by the Egyptian Center for Public Opinion Research in May 2015, the Egyptian public viewed Israel as the most hostile state (-88 on a scale of -100 to 100) of 26 mentioned in the survey.

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