Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty in 1979, marking the end of 30 years of relentless hostility and five costly wars. The treaty was preceded by Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem (1977), at the invitation of Israel’s Prime Minister Menachem Begin, as well as the signing of the Camp David Accords (1978) which constituted a basis for peace between Egypt and Israel and between Israel and its other neighbors. The accords also addressed the need to solve the Palestinian issue, following a five-year interim phase of autonomy for the Palestinian Arab residents of Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) and the Gaza Strip. President Sadat and Prime Minister Begin were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their achievement.
The peace implemented between Israel and Egypt consists of several major elements, including the termination of the state of war as well as acts or threats of belligerency, hostility or violence; the establishment of diplomatic, economic and cultural ties; the removal of barriers to trade and freedom of movement; and withdrawal by Israel from the Sinai peninsula, with agreed security arrangements and limited force zones. Israel completed its withdrawal from the Sinai (1982) according to the terms of the treaty, giving up strategic military bases and other assets in exchange for peace.
Although Egypt was ostracized by other Arab states following the signing of the treaty, most have since reestablished relations with Egypt and reopened their embassies in Cairo. The headquarters of the Arab League, which had been transferred to Tunis, were reinstated in Cairo in the early 1980s.
Having to overcome 30 years of distrust and hostility, normalization of relations between Israel and Egypt is a long and arduous process. Yet, embassies and consulates have been established by both countries, and meetings between government ministers and high-ranking officials take place regularly.
In 2004, Egypt and Israel signed a Qualified Industrial Zone (QIZ) Agreement under which jointly produced goods enter the U.S. market duty free as part of the U.S.-Israel Free Trade Agreement. As a result of the QIZ, Israeli exports to Egypt grew 110% in 2005.
Following the outbreak of Palestinian violence (September 2000), relations cooled considerably and Egypt recalled its ambassador, who later returned. Even during the tense period, cooperation continued in agriculture, and the joint military committee met regularly. As the Palestinian War wound down in 2005, Egypt’s trade with Israel picked up, and was expected to rise 130 per cent as a result of a U.S.-brokered agreement that created an estimated 15,000 Egyptian jobs. Egyptian-Israeli trade will rise from $58 million in 2004 to a projected $134 million in 2005. The volume is small — Egypt’s global exports are worth about $12 billion a year, Israel’s are about $30 billion — but the growth in trade is a positive development in the relationship. Still, Israeli investment in Egypt remains stagnant, largely because of lingering distrust and political sentiment.
In 2005, Israel signed an agreement to buy 1.7 billion cubic feet of Egyptian natural gas for an estimated $2.5 billion over 15 years, fulfilling a commitment made in an addendum to the peace treaty.
This treaty was nullified by Egypt in 2012, citing the fact that Israel was not living up to its obligations under the agreement.
The owners of the Israeli Tamar offshore gas field announced on October 20, 2014 that they had struck a deal with Egypt’s Dolphinus Holdings to sell Egypt up to 2.5 billion cubic meters of fuel over the following 7-year period. This fuel will make its way to Egypt through the same East Mediterranean Gas pipeline that Israel has gotten oil from Egypt through in the past. The deal is said to be worth around U.S. $4 billion ($3.13 billion Euros). Noble Energy, a gigantic natural gas conglomerate based out of the United States owns 36% of the Tamar oil field. Israeli gas exports are expected to bring in $60 billion in revenue over the next 20 years. This is the largest ever trade deal signed between Egypt and Israel.
Egypt appointed Hazem Khairat as Ambassador to Israel in June 2015, after they recalled their last Ambassador in 2012 in protest of Operation Pillar of Defense. Khairat is the former Egyptian ambassador to Chile and was welcomed to Israel as Prime Minister Netanyahu’s guest at his weekly cabinet meeting on January 3, 2016. Khairat presented his Diplomatic credentials to Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in Jerusalem on February 24, 2016, officially confirming him as Cairo’s first ambassador to Israel since 2012.
The Israeli embassy in Egypt was re-opened on September 9, 2015, after a closure due to security concerns during the Egyptian revolution that began in January 2011. On September 9, 2011, angry and violent protestors descended upon the Israeli embassy in Egypt, forcing the Diplomats and other officials inside to evacuate immediately. The embassy remained vacant for four years. Director-General of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, Dore Gold, stated at the re-opening ceremony on September 9, 2015, that, “Egypt will always be the biggest and most important state in the region. This event taking place in Cairo is also the beginning of something new.”
Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz met with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry on March 31, 2016, while they were both in Washington, DC for a top-level nuclear security summit. This was the highest-ranking meeting of Israeli and Egyptian officials since the 2011 Egyptian uprising. Steinitz’s office released a statement following the meeting, explaining that the two officials discussed various regional topics, including cooperation in natural gas and terrorism prevention.
Even after signing the peace agreement with Israel, Egypt’s education system continued to deny Israel’s legitimacy, referring to Israel as “Occupied Palestine,” rejecting any Jewish connection to the Land of Israel, and portraying it as a tool of Western imperialism. Cairo wanted to show that despite the peace treaty, the attitude towards Israel hasn’t changed and that the hearts of the Egyptians were still with the Palestinians. That’s why Israel has been mentioned in school textbooks as the bitter enemy of Egypt,” according to Amr Zakariya, a Cairo-based expert specializing in Israel-Egypt relations. He said books focused a great deal on the Israeli-Arab conflict and the Palestinian issue, whereas “Sadat’s peace initiative was sidelined and marginalized.”
Zakariya said the consequence was that “Schools have created a generation of people who don’t know or don’t want to acknowledge what Israel is. All they know is that Israel is an occupying force because that’s what their teachers told them.”
President Sisi began to introduce a different narrative emphasizing “that Egypt and Israel shared a common enemy – the threat of terror and acknowledging that breeding hatred would not solve the Palestinian problem,” Zakariya explained. This was made possible, in part, he added because of the improvement in relations between Israel and the Gulf states.
The al-Sisi government approved textbook The Geography of the Arab World and the History of Modern Egypt was introduced to Egyptian classrooms in May 2016 and features more inclusive and friendlier language towards Israel. The Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv reviewed the updated textbook and found more explicit support for peace with Israel, including an increased emphasis on the economic advantages of peace, than was found in the textbook’s predecessor. While the previous Egyptian standard history textbook (published in 2002) dedicated 32 pages to conflict with Israel and only three to peace, the new one condenses the conflicts down to 12 pages and allots four pages to discussing peace. It also includes a picture, for the first time, of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Egyptian 9th grade students are now required to memorize the provisions of the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace treaty, and write on the advantages of peace between the two groups. Another change is the inclusion of a photograph of the signing of the 1979 treaty.
Two Egyptian Sarcophagi covers that were illegally smuggled into Israel were returned to Egyptian Ambassador to Israel, Hazem Khairat, on May 22, 2016. The objects were brought into Israel through a third country and were confiscated by the Israel Antiquities Authority.
In June 2016, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry paid an official visit to Israel, the first visit of an Egyptian Foreign Minister to Israel in nine years. Shoukry and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu held lengthy discussions and expressed their mutual desire to re-start direct negotiations in Cairo between Israel and the Palestinians. The pair watched the Euro 2016 soccer championships together at Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem.
Israel’s new Ambassador to Egypt, David Govrin, presented his credentials to Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi as the Egyptian military band played the Israeli national anthem, on September 1, 2016. Prior to his appointment as Ambassador to Egypt, Govrin served as the Director of the Jordan and North Africa Department in the Israeli Foreign Ministry. This ceremony marked the first time in four years that the Israeli Embassy in Cairo was fully staffed.
To curb illegal immigration from Egypt to Israel, Israel raised the height by 10 feet of a 10-mile stretch of electrified fence along the Egyptian border in January 2017. The fence, which ranges from the Gaza Strip to the Israeli Red Sea resort of Eilat, stands 15 feet tall in most areas.
One sign of the improvement in relations since el-Sissi came to power is the initiation of flights by EgyptAir from Cairo to Tel Aviv. Previously, flagless aircraft operated by Air Sinai, a subsidiary of EgyptAir, flew between the two countries. The first flight, which landed in Tel Aviv on October 3, 2021, came two weeks after a meeting between the Egyptian president and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in Sharm El-Sheikh. That was the first visit by an Israeli prime minister to Egypt since 2011.
In March 2022, both countries agreed to launch a direct flight route between Tel Aviv and Sharm el-Sheikh.
The Israeli military carried out secret anti-terror drone operations in Egypt with the Egyptian government’s approval beginning in 2015. Unmarked Israeli drones, helicopters, and jets carried out a covert campaign of airstrikes in Egypt against terrorist targets, sometimes multiple strikes per week. The Israeli intervention helped the Egyptian government and military retain control and beat back the jihadist militants operating in the Sinai.
Israel has agreed to allow Egypt to have a greater military presence in the Sinai than provided by the peace treaty to allow the Egyptians to fight the Islamists. This has, however, created some potential danger for Israel and threatened its qualitative military edge. In addition to advanced weaponry provided by the United States, Cairo has purchased fifty MiG-29M/M2 fighter jets, fifty Ka-52 combat helicopters, and multiple S-300VM air-defense systems from Russia, along with four Gowind 2500 warships and twenty-four Rafale fighters from France.
This gives the Egyptians strategic flexibility and lessens Washington’s ability to limit what kind of military hardware they field, according to Maj. Gen. (Res.) Sami Turjeman, former head of the IDF Southern Command.
In February 2018, U.S.-based Noble Energy Inc and Israeli Delek Drilling LP announced $15 billion worth of deals to sell natural gas from the Leviathan and Tamar fields to Egypt over the subsequent 10 years. Noble, Delek, and their other partners in Leviathan and Tamar signed two agreements with Egypt’s Dolphinus Holdings to sell the country 64 billion cubic meters total of natural gas. In 2019, the companies agreed to increase the supply of natural gas to Egypt by 35% over the amount the parties agreed to in 2018. The first delivery of gas is expected in early 2020.
In 2019, a research center opened in Bern, Switzerland, that will be staffed by scientists in a variety of fields, including oceanography, biology, genetics, ecology and geology, from all the countries bordering the Red Sea. The center will study the effects of climate change, agriculture, urbanization, illegal fishing and industrial waste on Red Sea corals. This cooperation between Israel, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan is unprecedented.
Egypt sent two Mi-8 transport helicopters to help Israeli firefighters battle brush fires which broke out in southern Israel in late May 2019. The last time Egyptians were in the area was during the 1948 War.
Another sign of warming relations was that Egyptian President el-Sisi sent his foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, to the Negev Summit in March 2022 where he joined his counterparts from Israel, Morocco, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. A few days later Egypt and Israel discussed ways to expand economic and trade relations.
In 2021, bilateral trade between Egypt and Israel reached $330 million a year, an increase of 63% from 2020. Israel’s Minister of Economy and Industry Orna Barbivai said new measures will help double bilateral trade to $700 million within three years.
The two countries are looking for ways to increase export capacity under the Protocol of the Qualified Industrial Zone (QIZ). The program, established by the United States in 2005, allows products jointly manufactured by Egypt and Israel duty-free entry into the U.S., provided that Israeli components represent 11.7% of these products. There are 1,124 companies registered under the QIZ protocol as of February 2022, the vast majority of which produce textiles (80%). Exports under the QIZ protocol hit $1.2 billion in 2021 and made up 37% of Egypt’s total exports to the U.S.
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