While the Arab states recognize Israel, Egypt’s ‘cold peace’ points to challenges

Egyptian pop star Mohamed Ramadan posed for a photo at a party in Dubai in November with a prominent Israeli singer. On his return home, a pro-government lawyer charged him with “insulting the Egyptian people.”

A semi-official musicians’ union has suspended Mr Ramadan and Egypt’s journalism syndicate has launched a boycott of the singer. A television series in which he was acting was canceled.

Mr. Ramadan has said he was unaware of the singer’s nationality. “If I had known, I would certainly have refused to take the photo,” he wrote on Facebook last month.

Regional countries that recognize Israel

(year of recognition)

Regional countries that do not recognize Israel

Regional countries are “heating up” for Israel

Regional countries that recognize Israel

(year of recognition)

Regional countries that do not recognize Israel

Regional countries are “heating up” for Israel

Regional countries that recognize Israel

(year of recognition)

Regional countries that do not recognize Israel

Regional countries are “heating up” for Israel

Regional countries that recognize Israel

(year of recognition)

Regional countries that do not recognize


Regional countries are “heating up” for Israel

Egypt was the first Arab country to recognize Israel more than 40 years ago, but the country’s relationship with the country shows the challenges of translating government ties, often driven by mutual security interests, into grassroots goodwill. It is also a cautionary tale for Israelis seeking acceptance from the wider Middle East and North Africa by normalizing relations with governments.

The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain forged diplomatic relations with Israel in September, joining against Iran in a US-brokered deal that meant a broader diplomatic realignment in the Middle East.

A month later, Sudan agreed to normalize ties after the US pledged to drop it from a list of countries designated as state sponsors of terrorism. In December, Morocco became the fourth Arab state to agree to open diplomatic relations with Israel in exchange for recognizing US sovereignty over the disputed region of Western Sahara.

The US is also trying to negotiate a peace deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia, another rival to Iran, and with other Arab and Muslim-majority countries.

Arab states have historically refused formal diplomatic ties with Israel, while the conflict with the Palestinians remains unresolved. A variety of factors, including shared security interests and deals brokered by the Trump administration, brought the parties closer. After the UAE agreed to formalize ties with Israel, the Trump administration agreed to sell more than $ 23 billion in weapons to the Emirates, including the advanced F-35 fighter.

There is strong sympathy for Palestinians across the region, as reflected in recent protests in Sudan and Morocco against normalization agreements and campaigns calling for boycotts of Israeli products and institutions.

President Trump chaired the signing of a peace agreement between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain. (Originally published September 15, 2020)

However, Israeli officials have pointed to the new deals and the warm reception Israelis have received in Dubai when traveling for work or pleasure as a sign that many in the Middle East are willing to accept them.

“It’s strange and funny that a simple photo with an Israeli should cause all this controversy,” said Lior Ben Dor, an Israeli diplomat, in a video in Arabic responding to the controversy over Mohamed Ramadan. “We understand your solidarity as Arabs with the Palestinian people, but do you really think that criticizing Mohamed Ramadan will serve their cause?”

For ordinary Egyptians, a combination of opposition to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, continued hostility from when the countries were at war, and antipathy from some officials means that contact with Israelis is rare. The ties that exist are often secret.

The only direct flight from Cairo to Tel Aviv is not on public timetables at Cairo Airport and flies without an Egyptian flag. Exchanges between Egyptian and Israeli academics, artists and MPs are rare. According to World Bank data, Israel was ranked 27th among Egypt’s trading partners as of 2018. Government agencies in Egypt, such as trade syndicates, discourage their members from interacting with Israelis.

This persists despite Egypt’s close cooperation with Israel on security and President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi’s openness about his warm relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The so-called cold peace is the result of a two-pronged approach by Cairo in which it establishes a warm relationship at the top, but limits social and institutional ties, partly for fear of losing public legitimacy.

“We have never had such a good relationship with Israel, but it is only between Sisi and Israel. Anything else out there is not allowed, ”said Hisham Kassem, a leading Egyptian political analyst.


What Can Middle East Countries Do To Get Popular Acceptance Of Diplomatic Deals? Join the conversation below.

The complicated relationship began shortly after Cairo made peace with Israel in 1979, following the October 1973 war. The treaty allowed Egypt to regain control of the Sinai Peninsula, which Israel had previously conquered in the 1967 Six-Day War. . The 1973 war and the restoration of Sinai is considered a national triumph.

Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s president from 1981 until his overthrow in 2011, upheld the peace treaty but did little to promote contact between Egyptians and Israelis. He came to power at a time of rebellion and militancy in the Middle East, after the revolution in Iran, and Mr. Mubarak chose not to promote a peace deal that remained unpopular with many Egyptians.

His decision was in keeping with public skepticism about Israel and sympathy for the Palestinian cause. Left-wing and Islamist political parties mobilized against the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and wars in Lebanon and Gaza. Cairo remained an important hub for the Palestinian diaspora, hosting activists, refugees and intellectuals. Egyptian television and cinema, which today are heavily controlled by Egypt’s security state, have long portrayed Israelis in a negative light and glorified wars with Israel.

More than a dozen well-known Egyptians have come under fire in recent years for their dealings with Israelis, including the country’s foremost Muslim and Coptic Christian religious leaders, writers, intellectuals and artists. Sheikh Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, the former head of Al-Azhar in Cairo, the highest institution for science in Sunni Islam, faced a barrage of criticism for shaking hands with Israeli President Shimon Peres in 2008.

“It was not this handshake that would destroy the Palestinians,” Mr Tantawi said in defense.

Israelis claim they have fewer problems with cultural normalization in the Gulf region, particularly the UAE, given the lack of past wars between the countries. Thousands of Israelis are traveling to the Emirates as tourists this month, many of them excited about the new diplomatic relationship.

Moshe Hogeg, the Israeli owner of the Beitar Jerusalem football club, surrounded by fans in Jerusalem.


abir sultan / Shutterstock

Meanwhile, when an Emirates investor bought a stake in Beitar Jerusalem in December, supporters of the Israeli soccer team “F — Dubai” sprayed the stadium. The club’s leadership has said that the anti-Arab fans that Beitar Jerusalem is known for represent a minority of its supporters.

Israel faces more popular resistance to normalization elsewhere. In Sudan, the peace agreement is already shaken by domestic opposition. The king of Morocco is also under political pressure not to deepen ties with Israel, including from the country’s prime minister and parliament.

Israel also faces the challenge of forging diplomatic ties with autocratic governments that may contradict popular sentiment about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The president of Egypt is a former general who overthrew his elected predecessor in a coup, while the Emirates is a federation of absolute monarchies.

Israelis would be concerned if there were truly elected democratic governments in any of these places. That could threaten those relationships, ”said Khaled Elgindi, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington and a former adviser to the Palestinian leadership on negotiations with Israel.

Write to Jared Malsin at [email protected]

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