Quarterly Updates for (16 Aug 2016 — 15 Nov 2016)

With his inchoate peace initiative floundering (see JPS 46 [1]), Egyptian pres. al-Sisi disengaged from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict this quarter. Although Egyptian diplomats backed Palestinian efforts inside international institutions (see “The Palestinian-Israeli Conflict” above), they let France, Russia, and the U.S. take the lead on efforts to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Meanwhile, al-Sisi’s govt. continued a rapprochement with Israel and relieved pressure on Gaza with more frequent openings of the Rafah border in spite of continuing violence in n. Sinai.

Israeli-Egyptian cooperation on security issues and the blockade of Gaza had been improving for years leading up to this quarter, although al-Sisi’s govt. was far more hesitant to trumpet the burgeoning partnership than were the Israelis. In the same vein, the 2 sides advanced joint projects in private, while Egypt denied the growing rapprochement in public.

One telling incident happened early in the quarter, when, according to Al-Araby al-Jadeed, Egyptian FM Sameh Shoukry told (8/21) an audience of high school students that Israel’s killing of Palestinian children couldn’t be defined as terrorism, absent an internationally agreed-upon definition of the term. “Palestine is on our minds and the Egyptian people will remain concerned by the cause,” he was reported as saying, “but the question [of an IsraeliPalestinian agreement] is complicated by [questions of ] political will [on the part of] Israel, the role of the international community, and the Palestinians’ ability to remain steadfast.” Shoukry’s comments drew immediate fire from the Palestinians and their Arab allies. A Hamas spokesperson castigated (8/22) Shoukry for egregiously softening Israel’s image, tweeting, “Anyone who doesn’t view the crimes of the occupation as terrorism is physically blind and suffers from moral decline and a lack of direction.” In its response, Egypt’s Foreign Ministry insisted that Shoukry’s comments were misinterpreted. Be that as it may, Shoukry’s comments illustrated the growing rift between Arab political establishments and their populations.

In a further demonstration of warming Egyptian-Israeli relations, press reports indicated (10/18) that the 2 countries had recently discussed a series of large-scale projects, and specifically the assistance Israel might offer Egypt. Cairo reportedly sought a new desalination facility and extended cooperation on tourism, and Tel Aviv was willing to assist with solar energy, electricity production, agriculture, irrigation, and gas projects. In addition, David Govrin presented his credentials to al-Sisi on 8/31 as Israel’s amb. to Egypt replacing Haim Koren, who asked to step down after only 2 years in the post.

In addition to more than doubling the number of times it opened the Rafah border crossing this quarter (see “Movement and Access” above), the Egyptian govt. was also considering the establishment of a free trade zone in Rafah, according to the Times of Israel on 11/4. As the city straddles both Egypt and Gaza, a free trade zone would effectively ease restrictions on Gazans, allowing them to purchase goods on the Egyptian side of the border. It was unclear, however, how soon the Egyptians intended to create the zone, if at all, since the report remained unconfirmed.