As Arab States Recognize Israel, Egypt’s ‘Cold Peace’ Points to Challenges Ahead

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As Arab States Recognize Israel, Egypt’s ‘Cold Peace’ Points to Challenges Ahead

Delegates attended a digital conference held by Israel and the United Arab Emirates in Dubai on Dec. 7.

Photo: abdel hadi ramahi/Reuters

Egyptian popstar 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 sued him for “insulting the Egyptian people.”

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

Mr. Ramadan has said he wasn’t aware of the singer’s nationality. “Had I known, I would have certainly refused to take the photo,” he wrote on Facebook last month.

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Regional countries that recognize Israel

(year of recognition)

Regional countries that don’t recognize Israel

Regional countries “warming” to Israel

TURKEY (1950)

MOROCCO

(2020)

JORDAN

(1994)

BAHRAIN

(2020)

EGYPT

(1979)

U.A.E.

(2020)

Saudi

ARABIA

SUDAN

(2020)

Regional countries that recognize Israel

(year of recognition)

Regional countries that don’t recognize Israel

Regional countries “warming” to Israel

TURKEY (1950)

MOROCCO

(2020)

JORDAN

(1994)

BAHRAIN

(2020)

EGYPT

(1979)

U.A.E.

(2020)

Saudi

ARABIA

SUDAN

(2020)

Regional countries that recognize Israel

(year of recognition)

Regional countries that don’t recognize Israel

Regional countries “warming” to Israel

MOROCCO

(2020)

TURKEY (1950)

BAHRAIN

(2020)

JORDAN

(1994)

EGYPT

(1979)

U.A.E.

(2020)

Saudi

ARABIA

SUDAN

(2020)

Regional countries that recognize Israel

(year of recognition)

Regional countries that don’t recognize

Israel

Regional countries “warming” to Israel

North Africa

MOROCCO

(2020)

EGYPT

(1979)

SUDAN

(2020)

Middle East

TURKEY (1950)

BAHRAIN

(2020)

JORDAN

(1994)

EGYPT

(1979)

U.A.E.

(2020)

Saudi

ARABIA

SUDAN

(2020)

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

The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain forged diplomatic relations with Israel in September, uniting against Iran in a U.S.-brokered deal that marked a broader diplomatic realignment in the Middle East.

A month later Sudan agreed to normalize ties, after the U.S. promised to take it off a list of countries designated state sponsors of terrorism. In December, Morocco became the fourth Arab state to agree to opening diplomatic relations with Israel, in return for the U.S. recognizing its sovereignty over the disputed Western Sahara region.

The U.S. is also trying to broker 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 its conflict with the Palestinians remains unresolved. A variety of factors, including shared security interests and deals brokered by the Trump administration, brought the sides closer. After the U.A.E. 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.

Throughout the region, sympathy for the Palestinians runs deep, reflected in recent protests in Sudan and Morocco against the normalization deals and campaigns calling for boycotts of Israeli products and institutions.

President Trump presided over the signing of a peace agreement between Israel, the U.A.E. and Bahrain. (Originally published Sept. 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 ready to accept them.

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

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

The one direct flight from Cairo to Tel Aviv isn’t listed on public schedules in the Cairo airport and flies without an Egyptian flag. Exchanges between Egyptian and Israeli academics, artists and members of parliament are rare. Israel ranked 27th among Egypt’s trading partners as of 2018, according to World Bank data. Government-linked institutions in Egypt, such as trade syndicates, discourage their members from contact 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 Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The so-called cold peace is the result of a dual approach by Cairo in which it engages in a warm relationship at the top, but limits social and institutional ties, in part due to fear of losing public legitimacy.

“We’ve never had such good relations with Israel, but it’s between Sisi only and Israel. Anything else outside that is not allowed,” said Hisham Kassem, a leading Egyptian political analyst.

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The complicated relationship began soon 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 captured in the 1967 Six Day war. The 1973 war and the recovery of the Sinai is regarded as a national triumph.

Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s president from 1981 until his overthrow in 2011, maintained 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, following the revolution in Iran, and Mr. Mubarak chose not to promote a peace deal that remained unpopular with many Egyptians.

His decision meshed with public skepticism about Israel and sympathy with the Palestinian cause. Leftist and Islamist political parties mobilized against 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 film, which today is heavily controlled by Egypt’s security state, has long portrayed Israelis in a negative light and glorified past wars with Israel.

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

“It wasn’t this handshake that was going to destroy the Palestinians,” Mr. Tantawi said in his defense.

Israelis argue that they face fewer challenges to cultural normalization in the Gulf region, in particular the U.A.E., given the lack of past wars between the countries. Thousands of Israelis are traveling to the Emirates as tourists this month, many of them enthusiastic about the new diplomatic relationship.

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

Photo: abir sultan/Shutterstock

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

Israel faces more popular resistance to normalization elsewhere. In Sudan, the peace deal is already teetering due to domestic opposition. Morocco’s king also faces 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 who may be at odds with popular sentiment about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Egypt’s president is a former general who overthrew his elected predecessor in a coup, while the Emirates is a federation of absolute monarchies.

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

Write to Jared Malsin at jared.malsin@wsj.com

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