July 11, 2016 - Netanyahu meets with Egyptian FM Shukry; Expanding Israel’s spheres of strategic influence while internalizing the Palestinian issue

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Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

This week, Alpher discusses what’s behind the flurry of diplomatic and strategic activity, including Israel’s rapprochement with Turkey, Netanyahu's meeting in East Africa with seven regional leaders, and the Egyptian foreign minister visiting Israel for the first time in nine years; the strategic backdrop in East Africa; Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukry's presumed discussion with Netanyahu about Israeli-Turkish relations; Shukry and Netanyahu's statements Sunday concerning the need to renew some sort of Israeli-Palestinian peace or at least confidence-building process; whether the right-wing Netanyahu government with its strong pro-settler element really has anything to talk about with the Arabs concerning the Palestinian issue; and what’s next regarding establishing Israeli spheres of strategic influence in the region and beyond, and what might this signify for the Palestinian issue.

Q. Last week, PM Netanyahu followed up Israel’s rapprochement with Turkey by meeting in East Africa with seven regional leaders. Then on Sunday this week, the Egyptian foreign minister visited Israel for the first time in nine years. What’s behind this flurry of diplomatic and strategic activity?

A. Netanyahu appears intent on creating a number of spheres of close strategic cooperation around Israel. This effort has several objectives: enhanced cooperation against militant Islam, expanded economic activity that can compensate for possible western sanctions against Israel over the Palestinian issue, reducing Israeli reliance on any one strategic partner by multiplying them, and dwarfing the prominence of the Palestinian issue at least in regional terms.

 

Q. Last week you talked about Israel and Turkey. Moving on to East Africa, what specifically is the strategic backdrop?

A. Israel began developing strategic relations with a variety of African countries beginning in the 1950s. In East Africa, particularly, these ties contributed to Israeli security and maritime and aerial safe passage in the Red Sea region. Back then when Israel and Egypt were in a state of war, Israel’s relations with Nile basin states like Uganda and Ethiopia and with the South Sudanese rebels--embodied in Israel’s “periphery doctrine”--sent a signal to the hostile Arab “core”, meaning (in the African context) Egypt, that Israel could maneuver in Egypt’s strategic hinterland and conceivably even threaten Cairo’s lifeline, the Nile.

Many of these African ties were broken or weakened after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Egypt could portray Israel as occupying African territory (the Sinai Peninsula). While Netanyahu last week described his trip as an exciting historic renewal of relations, in fact they have been developing for years. Still, the trip highlighted several important strategic issue areas for Israel.

One is cooperation against militant Islam--a critical issue for countries like Ethiopia and Kenya, and one where Israel has acknowledged expertise to share. A second is enhanced economic relations: Netanyahu was accompanied by dozens of Israeli entrepreneurs looking for expanding markets. And a third, as in the past, is the Nile, except that this time Netanyahu reportedly undertook to pass on some sort of messages, reassurances or ideas between Egypt and Ethiopia regarding Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam, which is being built near the source of the Blue Nile and is perceived by Egypt as a major threat to its water supply. This reported mediation mission, incidentally, may have constituted a major reason for Sunday’s quick visit to Jerusalem by Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukry.

 

Q. Shukry presumably also wanted to talk to Netanyahu about Israeli-Turkish relations.

A. Without doubt. Here too it was critical for Netanyahu to update and reassure the Egyptians. Since its advent three years ago, the Sisi regime in Egypt has been characterized by fierce suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood, while Erdogan’s Turkey has become the effective patron of Egyptian Brotherhood exiles and media. Now the repairing of Israeli-Turkish relations will enable Turkey to become the economic patron of Hamas in Gaza, which is also seen by the Egyptians as a hostile entity. Shukry almost certainly needed to hear from Netanyahu that Turkish aid to Gaza’s two million Palestinians will in no way compromise Egyptian security interests in Sinai, where Egypt has been battling an Islamist insurrection aided and abetted by Hamas.

 

Q. Yet the main note that both Shukry and Netanyahu sounded in public on Sunday concerned the need to renew some sort of Israeli-Palestinian peace or at least confidence-building process.

A. This brings us back to the events of last May, when Sisi was persuaded by Tony Blair to publicly welcome an Israeli peace effort based on a Netanyahu-Herzog, Likud-Labor unity government and coordinated with the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative (API). We recall that Netanyahu ended up expanding his government toward the right by adding Avigdor Lieberman as minister of defense, rather than to the center-left by bringing Herzog and Labor into the coalition. At that time, in an almost ritual manner Netanyahu and Lieberman then expressed interest in a peace process and in the API “with amendments”. Sisi, seemingly tricked into endorsing Netanyahu’s political move to the right, responded with a “that’s not what I intended” comment and the Saudi foreign minister added that there could be no amendments to the API.

Now, Shukry’s visit appears to reflect weeks of behind-the-scenes efforts in Cairo by Netanyahu’s emissary Yitzhak Molcho to persuade the Egyptians to overcome their doubts and offer some sort of auspices for a renewed process. The idea would apparently be to bring Israeli and Palestinian representatives together in Cairo in the presence of Egyptian and Jordanian officials to discuss, at least initially, confidence-building measures. Israel could offer a settlement-construction freeze and transfer of limited authority in West Bank Area C to the Palestinian Authority. Reciprocal Palestinian measures could include offers to curb incitement or even withdraw from the international peace initiatives (French, UN) that Netanyahu seeks to scuttle. The Saudis and the Emirates would give their blessing for the Egyptian role, while Lieberman would acquiesce in the Israeli gestures, thereby reducing opposition within the Israeli government. Netanyahu would also hope to recruit Saudi and other Arab pressure, along with Turkish efforts, to persuade Hamas to relinquish the bodies of two Israeli soldiers and release two mentally disturbed Israelis who wandered of their own volition into the Gaza Strip, without Israel paying an exorbitant price in terms of release of Hamas prisoners.

 

Q. But does the right-wing Netanyahu government with its strong pro-settler element really have anything to talk about with the Arabs concerning the Palestinian issue?

A. On the face of it, there is little in common between the Egyptian and Israeli positions regarding a Palestinian state. Shukry pointedly declared in Jerusalem that the Palestinians require the 1967 lines and a capital in East Jerusalem--demands openly rejected by Netanyahu. On the other hand, modest confidence-building measures are at least technically possible, but only if the Egyptians can persuade Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) to sanction direct contacts with the Netanyahu government. Abbas has good reason to fear that Netanyahu will trumpet even minor gestures, especially if they involve territory, as a major breakthrough that obviates the need for further serious international efforts and leaves the Palestinians farther than ever from a fair two-state solution.

 

Q. So why do the Egyptians bother?

A. Egypt’s concerns regarding Netanyahu’s Ethiopia/Nile visit and the Erdogan-Netanyahu deal are apparently reason enough to touch base in Jerusalem for a day. To this we must add the additional ways in which Cairo apparently believes Israel can be helpful. The Sisi regime has a highly problematic human rights record that hinders its efforts to acquire arms from the West. Here Israel can put in a good word with the US Congress. Sisi needs ongoing close military coordination with the IDF regarding the Sinai insurrection. As for the Palestinian issue, if Israel and the PLO can cooperate sufficiently with Egypt to at least hold conversations under Sisi’s auspices, this would significantly boost his international and regional standing at a time when his regime is in dire need of enhanced stability and prestige. One way or another, by casting his visit as a mission on behalf of the Palestinians, Shukry avoided excess criticism from other Arab quarters.

 

Q. Returning to Netanyahu’s seemingly successful drive to establish Israeli spheres of strategic influence in the region and beyond, what’s next, and what might this signify for the Palestinian issue?

A. Let’s not forget the very positive relationships developed in recent years with EU members Greece and Cyprus and with Russia. In all three cases, as well as with Turkey and possibly Egypt, sales of Israeli Mediterranean gas and shared concerns regarding militant Islam constitute major incentives for cooperation. Netanyahu reportedly is planning late-2016 trips to Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan as well, both strategically located to the north of Iran--the only country that still calls for Israel to disappear from the map.

Netanyahu has pursued the expansion of these spheres with considerable skill. To the extent he succeeds in fortifying Israel strategically and economically against Palestine-related pressures—ranging from French or US-sponsored negotiations and UN Security Council moves to EU economic sanctions and the global BDS campaign--the net outcome is the ongoing internalization by Israel of the Palestinian problem, with Israel continuing to expand settlements and thereby to slide down a slippery slope of its own making toward a one-state entity.

Here no external pressures will be necessary. Netanyahu’s diplomatic maneuvers in Addis Abeba, Ankara and even Cairo might be impressive. But he still has no viable strategy whatsoever for maintaining Israel as a Zionist, Jewish and democratic state.

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