Ever since Hosni Mubarak took flight to Sharm el Sheikh, it’s been widely assumed that Egypt’s relationship with Israel is going to change. Public opinion wouldn’t have it any other way. The gas deal—in which Israel benefits from favorable pricing—the blockade of Gaza, and the general perception that Mubarak had aligned Egypt with Israel (and the United States) at the expense of Egyptian interests, contributed to the polarized and angry political environment on the eve of the revolution. Still, there was no definitive statement coming from Cairo other than the military’s affirmation of the 1979 peace treaty about an Israel policy…until now.
For those of us who don’t have regular access to the Egyptian television channel “Dream,” we can thank the Egyptian blogger Zeinobia for giving us a rundown of a recent interview with Foreign Minister al Arabi. The headline, if you want to call it that was al Arabi’s statement that Egypt’s relations with Israel would be “normal” as opposed to “special,” which marked the nature of relations during the Mubarak era. I suppose that is news to most Israelis and their partisans who complain about a cold peace, but Israel’s foreign policy and national security establishment regarded Mubarak as a “strategic asset” (that’s direct quote, but I can’t say who said it) plain and simple.
Here’s a rundown of what else al Arabi had to say:
- The gas deal will be reviewed;
- He’d like to see the UN forces replace the MFO in Sinai;
- Egypt does not regard Iran as an enemy and al Arabi doesn’t see a problem with Tehran and Ankara playing more influential roles in the region;
- He criticized the Madrid process for overshadowing Resolution 242 (this one is hard to understand given that, if I am not mistaken, Madrid was based on 242. I’ll have to ask the boss, who was instrumental in putting the Madrid conference together);
- Al Arabi suggested that Egypt might seek compensation from Israel for damages related to its occupation of Sinai and the alleged massacre of Egyptian POWs (I have seen no credible evidence of the latter);
- And, he wants to end Egypt’s blockade of Gaza.
None of this is terribly surprising. It tracks exactly with widespread public sentiment.
Of all these issues, the Egyptians should be careful about Gaza. I hate to say it and I might get in trouble with my Egyptian friends, but Hosni Mubarak might have been correct on this one. I know that sounds terrible. Gaza is in bad shape and Mubarak’s strict blockade of the area helped make a terrible situation for most Gazans worse. That said, once the Egyptians open that border, there is a strong possibility that Gaza will become Cairo’s problem. I’ve written about this when when Hamas blew open a whole in the wall along the Gaza-Sinai frontier in 2008. At the time, prominent Israelis (including officials) and some influential voices on Middle East policy in Washington began calling for greater Arab responsibility for Gaza. Translation: Egyptian responsibility. Welcome to 1948. I am not being conspiratorial. The Israelis have been pretty open about the fact that they’ve wanted to rid themselves of Gaza for a long time.
Egyptians may well determine that having Gaza dumped in their collective lap may be well worth the price of dealing with the challenges that the Strip presents. Playing a role in relief for 1.5 million Gazans and truly helping to foster Palestinian reconciliation rather than working to undermine Hamas is in keeping with the spirit of the revolution and will go a long way toward restoring Egypt’s lost regional luster. Perhaps. Egyptians should tread lightly here: Gaza is extraordinarily complex and the Palestinians have their own interests. Nobody—Palestinians, Israelis, and Egyptians—looks upon Egypt’s last go around there fondly.