Analysis: Secret pact between Israel and Egypt against Islamic State

Israel has been covertly launching strikes against Islamic State in Sinai as part of a two-year  campaign secretly approved by Egypt, US media revealed last weekend.

The airstrikes – carried out by unmarked Israeli warplanes, drones and helicopters – are estimated to be taking place at the rate of at least once a week.

The targeted jihadis have been responsible for a string of deadly terrorist attacks in the Egypt’s Northern Sinai desert over the past two years. Last November, 40 gunman murdered 300 worshippers at the al-Rawdah mosque.

The Ansar Beit al Maqdis, which is estimated to have over 1,000 members, declared itself the Sinai Province branch of IS in November 2014. Although it only briefly managed to seize control of the town of Sheikh Zuweid in July 2015, the terror group has launched dozens of attacks on soldiers, policemen and Coptic Christians in the sparsely populated Sinai region.

It is also widely blamed for the downing of a Russian airliner in October 2015, in which 224 people were killed. Israel’s campaign against the militants is believed to have commenced soon after that attack.

As the New York Times reported, “the remarkable cooperation [between Israel and Egypt] marks a new stage in the evolution of their singularly fraught relationship”. The 1978 Camp David Accords brought what has been frequently termed a “cold peace” between the two nations which had fought three wars in the previous two decades. Under the agreement, Israel withdrew from the Sinai, territory it occupied after the 1967 war, and evacuated its settlements there. In return, Egypt formally established diplomatic relations with Israel – the first Arab state to do so. Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, who, alongside Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize following the agreement, was assassinated by Islamist militants in 1981.

The Israeli strikes in Sinai have not been confirmed by either Cairo or Jerusalem, with Egyptian media labelling them “fake news”. However, despite the covert nature of the operation – Israeli drones are unmarked and the country’s jets and helicopters cover their markings and are said to fly a circuitous route so not as to appear as if they’re entering Egyptian territory from Israel – it has been described as “one of the least well-kept secrets in the Middle East”.

Although the notion that Israel and Egypt might be cooperating militarily, with the former effectively helping the latter police its territory, is highly sensitive domestically, some analysts predict its revelation is unlikely to cause ructions in Egypt. “Isis has done so many horrible things in Egypt,” one former US official told the Washington Post, “I’m not sure the average Egyptian will be more upset about who’s cooperating with who, than who’s the target.”

The military strikes bring advantages for both Israel and Egypt, suggested the New York Times. “For Cairo, the Israeli intervention has helped the Egyptian military regain its footing in its nearly five-year battle against the militants. For Israel, the strikes have bolstered the security of its borders and the stability of its neighbour.”

Israel and Egypt have been cooperating for a number of years against the threat posed by Hamas, with both countries attempting to restrict goods entering Gaza which might be used by the group to build tunnels or manufacture rockets. Egypt has destroyed Hamas’ smuggling tunnels which cross into its territory and attempted to ensure that IS militants cannot flee from Sinai into Gaza.

But the secret alliance against IS in Sinai between Israel and Egypt is just one indication – albeit a dramatic one – of the reordering of the Middle East and the growing rapprochement between the Jewish state and its former Sunni Arab enemies. This rapprochement has been driven by a number of factors, including a perception that the Arab Spring unleashed destabilising forces, especially a rise of Islamist militancy, and declining US engagement and influence in the region. It is, however, the threat posed by Iranian expansionism and the Islamic republic’s nuclear programme which has been the greatest source of his reconfiguration.

During his visit to London last November, Israeli’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, spoke openly about the emerging Middle East: “There is something that I wouldn’t have expected in my lifetime, but we’re working very hard to establish, and that is an effective alliance between Israel and the moderate Sunni states to counter Iran.”

It is a view which stretches across the Israeli political spectrum. As the Israeli opposition leader, Isaac Herzog, explained last month: “At this moment there is a new situation where several states have begun seeking a regional partner in order to stop Iran. These states have stopped believing in the global powers because they sold them out to Iran. These states view Israel as their sole partner who can help them.”

The most significant moves are those which are taking place between Israel and Saudi Arabia. The Gulf kingdom has no diplomatic ties with Israel and publicly continues to insist there will be none until the conflict between it and the Palestinians is resolved.

However, beneath the surface it appears Saudi hostility to Israel is lessening. The two countries have supposedly engaged in talks about building an economic relationship and it has even been suggested that the powerful, modernising Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman, secretly visited the Jewish state on a two-day trip last September.

Yesterday, it was reported that Saudi Arabia has, for the first time, given permission for flights between Israel and India to cross its airspace, although Riyadh subsequently denied the stories.

There have been other, more overt, signs of a thaw in relations. Dr Mohammed Al Issa, the secretary-general of the Saudi-based Muslim World League, recently wrote an open letter to the director of Washington’s Holocaust Memorial Museum expressing sympathy for those murdered by the Nazis and criticising Holocaust denial (a widespread and frequently officially tolerated phenomenon in the region).

In November, the IDF chief of staff, General Gadi Eizenkot, gave an interview with the Saudi Elaph newspaper, in which he stated Israel was “ready to exchange experiences with Saudi Arabia and other moderate countries [as well as] intelligence information to confront Iran”. The owner of the site is a senior Saudi journalist, Othman al-Omeir, with close ties to the royal family. Observers note that such an interview would not have been sought or published without the implicit approval of the kingdom’s rulers.

These moves follow other tentative signs over the previous couple of years. In 2016, a former Saudi intelligence head, Prince Turki al-Feisal, met with Yaakov Amidror, a former head of Israel’s National Security Council, at a forum in Washington. Al-Feisal also discussed Iran at an event held at a New York synagogue with the former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy. Dr Anwar Eshki, a retired Saudi general and founder of the Middle East Centre for Strategic and Legal Studies, led a rare, open delegation of academics and businessmen to Israel in July 2016. Eshki had previously publicly shaken hands with Dore Gold, a former senior adviser to Netanyahu and leading figure in the Israeli foreign policy world.

It is these developments that are believed to underpin the much-awaited US peace plan and help explain why reaction in the Arab world to President Trump’s decision in December to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel was somewhat muted. Thus, in contrast to Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas’ fierydenunciations and suggestions that he will have nothing to do with the Americans, Arab leaders have adopted a more measured approach.

Last week, for instance, King Abdullah of Jordan said he would “prefer to remain optimistic” about the prospects for peace, while the Saudi foreign affairs minister argued: “We must wait for the American initiative”, suggesting: “If it will have components that both parties can accept, it will be possible to renew negotiations despite the current crisis surrounding the Trump statement.” It has even been reported that a senior Egyptian intelligence official phoned key Egyptian TV hosts after Trump’s announcement and requested they encourage their viewers to accept the president’s decision.

The Americans are banking that – keen for closer and more open ties with Israel – the Arab states will pressure the Palestinians into accepting what the president eventually puts on the table, even if it falls short of Abbas’ wishes. A promise of Saudi cash to boost a new Palestinian state, plus the knowledge that Riyadh, Cairo and Amman will help the Palestinian Authority sell difficult compromises to the ‘Arab street’, may also help to sweeten any deal.