The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Israel’s growing ties with former Arab foes

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A number of recent reports have appeared to confirm one of the worst-kept secrets in the Middle East. In coordination with Egyptian authorities, Israel has for months been conducting clandestine airstrikes against jihadist groups operating in northern Sinai. The Israelis used unmarked drones, helicopters and jets to launch at least 100 strikes on the peninsula, all with the apparent blessing of Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi.

Both the New York Times and The Washington Post on Saturday ran stories, sourced to former U.S. and British officials, that confirmed the Israeli strikes. They come as Egypt is struggling to control a devastating insurgency in Sinai, and they mark a striking secret alliance between two countries that have fought three wars against each other and then presided over a fragile peace.

"The covert alliance between Egypt and Israel on counter­terrorism shows how the rise of the Islamic State and other Islamist militant groups has helped forge quiet partnerships between Israel and its longtime Arab adversaries," wrote my colleague Greg Jaffe. But it's not just about the Islamic State.

"Behind the scenes, Egypt’s top generals have grown steadily closer to their Israeli counterparts since the signing of the Camp David accords 40 years ago, in 1978," noted the Times. "Egyptian security forces have helped Israel enforce restrictions on the flow of goods in and out of the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian territory bordering Egypt controlled by the militant group Hamas. And Egyptian and Israeli intelligence agencies have long shared information about militants on both sides of the border.

Authorities in both countries are not publicly admitting to the strikes. As part of its sweeping counterinsurgency in Sinai, Egypt has blocked journalists from reporting in the peninsula. Israel's military imposes its own form of censorship on local journalists covering matters of national security. One analyst likened Israel's treatment of the affair to its perennial silence over the existence of its covert nuclear weapons program.

“The Israeli strikes inside of Egypt are almost at the same level,” said Zak Gold, an expert on Sinai affairs, to the Times. "Every time anyone says anything about the nuclear program, they have to jokingly add ‘according to the foreign press.’ Israel’s main strategic interest in Egypt is stability, and they believe that open disclosure would threaten that stability."

The violence in northern Sinai, stoked by years of Egyptian misrule and the emergence of radical extremist groups in the region, shows little sign of waning. In November, militants linked to the Islamic State attacked a mosque there, killing more than 300 people. Israeli air power and technical know-how may be increasingly necessary for Sissi's government to keep pace.

“It’s a symptom of how close the two countries have become in security cooperation,” a former U.S. official familiar with the campaign told The Post. “But it illustrates how poorly the Egyptians have done dealing with the terrorist threat. Both Israel and the United States have complained about the fact the Egyptians have not taken advice and recommendations the United States have been offering for some time.”

Egypt, of course, is not alone in finding common cause with a former nemesis. Most conspicuously, the Israelis and Saudis have been deepening their security ties and contacts, joined by their mutual antipathy for Iran. But their growing cooperation is still officially covert; tightening bonds with the country that still holds millions of Palestinians under military occupation would be politically problematic for any Arab country.

"Palestine is not an easy issue," a senior Saudi official recently told the Wall Street Journal. "Saudi Arabia is expecting to hold Islamic leadership and will not let it go easily. And, if you need Israel in anything, you can do it anyway, without having a relationship."

President Trump met with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu at the 2018 World Economic Forum on Jan. 25 where Netanyahu thanked Trump for his Jerusalem decision. (Video: The Washington Post)

It's clear also that Palestine is not the all-encompassing, emotive issue it once was. The Times published reports of secret calls between Egyptian military intelligence officials and prominent broadcasters that took place in the wake of President Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital, a move Egypt had publicly warned against.

In the phone calls, an Egyptian officer urges the journalists to not stir outrage over Trump's decision and even advises them to find a way to convince the Egyptian public that the Palestinians should let go of their claim to East Jerusalem.

“How is Jerusalem different from Ramallah, really?” the officer says on the taped call, referring to the West Bank town where the beleaguered Palestinian Authority is headquartered. Moreover, according to the Times, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has pressed Palestinian officials to accept an extremely curtailed version of statehood with a capital in East Jerusalem. (Though sourced to Western and Palestinian officials, the Saudis deny these reports.)

Arab leaders, of course, still voice their disquiet over Israel's expansion of settlements in the Palestinian territories. At an interview at the World Economic Forum last month, King Abdullah II of Jordan said Palestinians no longer see the United States as an honest broker in the moribund peace process. He also made a polite attack on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"I reserve my judgment," he said, when asked whether Netanyahu is committed to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. "I have my skepticism."

“The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not as important for them as it was before, but they are afraid of making official relations with Israel without any major movement on the Israeli-Palestinian issue,” said Israeli Brig. Gen. Udi Dekel, referring to other Sunni Arab states in the region. He was speaking at a recent security conference in Jerusalem where he also described Israel's "strategic situation" as "almost the best" since the founding of the state.

"Without that movement, the people on the street will ask them, ‘for so many years you told us that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the most important problem," Dekel said. "How can you accept that Israel is controlling the West Bank and is not giving Palestinians any rights?’"

But as attention shifts even further away from the Palestinian plight, the Israelis are possibly banking on the Egyptians, Saudis and others finding new ways to live with that status quo.

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