MESOP TODAYS Expert Commentary : Enhancing Egyptian-Israeli Ties under the Trump Administration – AN EFFICENT STEP FORWARD IN MIDDLE EAST

April 2, 2017 | Haisam Hassanein – The Newsletter – Glazer Fellow, Washington Institute for Near East Policy

Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi is at the White House on Monday with the high hopes of receiving strong support from U.S. President Donald Trump. One of the major issues that the Egyptian President will surely stress to attain this favor is the sustainment of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty.

While the Egypt-Israel peace treaty is significant, and Egypt deserves credit for honoring it, signing a treaty was unthinkable nearly 40 years ago when the two countries became peace partners, and there was deep mistrust regarding intentions between the two sides. Coupled with the existing hostile relations between the Jewish state and its Arab neighbors, striking the peace deal with Israel put Egypt in a bad light.

With the changes the region has endured in the past six years, relations between Israel and Egypt, as well as with many Arab other states, seem headed toward a more positive direction. For the Egyptians, their relationship with Israel peaked after the 2011 Arab Spring, when the deteriorating security situation in the Sinai Peninsula pushed Egypt to cooperate with Israel, without American insistence, for the first time. In addition, many Gulf countries found themselves having converging interests with Israel, especially with growing Iranian meddling in the region.

Nonetheless, popular sentiment in Egypt towards Israel remains negative. According to a recent report by the Middle East Monitor, 89 percent of Arabs view Israel as the major threat to the region, on par with ISIS and higher than the 72 percent who had a negative view of Iran.

How can the Trump Administration build on this thaw between the governments of Egypt and Israel, so that real progress can be achieved ten years down the road between these two important American allies? When it comes to discussing Egyptian-Israeli relations with President Sisi, the Trump Administration should stress enhancing the normalization of relations between the two countries. While it is understandable that certain decisions made by the Egyptian government regarding Israel will be very costly politically, there are other decisions, vis-à-vis Israel, that could be positive for Egypt down the road.

When meeting with Sisi, U.S. government officials should emphasize a need to overcome several obstacles that are impeding progress in Egypt-Israel relations. One hurdle is that many religious clerics in Egypt continue to preach that Jews are traitors, who cannot be trusted as they are “killers of the prophets.” Since coming to power, Sisi has been very aware of the role of religious discourse in shaping people’s views and to what extent it has led to negative consequences within the Egyptian society. During a meeting with religious scholars, Sisi said “There is no way a religion can confront the whole world because the problem is not the religion, but it is the thoughts, and this requires a big role from Al-Azhar and endowment scholars.” The U.S. should stress to Egypt officials that they should incentivize religious educators to preach tolerance and more accepting views when it comes to Jews and other religious minority groups in the country, such as Coptic Christians.

A second barrier is that Israel is one of 16 countries Egyptians cannot travel to without a permit from national security authorities. Consequently, Egyptians do not travel to Israel except in three cases: diplomats at the embassy in Tel Aviv, some Christian pilgrims, and a few journalists trusted by the security apparatus.

An important step for Egypt would be for the government to make tourism to Israel possible without requiring that individuals obtain permission from the country’s intelligence and security apparatus. The process itself prevents a lot of people from even thinking about this option. If travel tours to Israel become an option, there would be a constituency of the Egyptian society who would be willing to travel and see the other side. Despite the fact they would be in small numbers, it would be a start of enhanced cultural understanding. The experience and impressions they will get would help remove many stereotypes and the deep rooted hatred in Egyptian society toward Israel and Jews in general.

A third area for increased cooperation is in the education sector. Interestingly, Egypt has Hebrew departments at 13 universities across the country, but the few thousands of students who graduate from these programs every year are not allowed to travel to Israel. Opening up the travel opportunities would be beneficial, both educationally and personally. An initial step could be mimicking the Israeli Academic Center in Cairo by creating an Egyptian Academic Center in Tel Aviv, which Egyptian officials promised to do many years ago. This could be coupled with creating semester-long, student exchange programs between selected prominent Israeli universities and their Egyptian counterparts.

Fourth, enhanced economic cooperation would go a long way in improving Egypt-Israel relations. In the past few years, Egypt’s economy has been going through a tough time. One of Egypt’s future economic challenges will be issues of water security. Given Israel’s tremendous experience with water technology, cooperating with Israel could be very beneficial for Egypt in the long term. However, since the peace treaty, few Egyptian businessmen have been allowed to partake in business dealings with Israel and only under scrutiny from the national security establishment. Easing these restrictions would help promote Egypt-Israel relations.

Overall, the Trump Administration should stress to Sisi the importance of maintaining the peace treaty, but most importantly, enhancing normalization between the two countries in several key areas moving forward.

Haisam Hassanein is a Glazer fellow at The Washington Institute, where he will focus on economic relations between Israel and Arab states. He earned his B.A. in political science from Lebanon Valley College in Pennsylvania. After completing an internship at the Institute in 2014, he enrolled into a M.A. program in Middle Eastern studies at Tel Aviv University, where he was named the graduate school valedictorian.