Skip to main content

Egypt and Israel: A lover and his mistress

Like a lover and his mistress, Egypt and Israel intimately collaborate on the security front, but their relations do not extend much beyond this.
Egyptian air force planes trace a heart during the inauguration ceremony of the new Suez Canal, in Ismailia, Egypt, August 6, 2015. Egypt staged a show of international support on Thursday as it inaugurated a major extension of the Suez Canal which President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi hopes will power an economic turnaround in the Arab world's most populous country. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh      TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY      - RTX1NCFA

Egyptian media made no effort to spare their readers from the guest list of who was invited to the festive inauguration of the latest Suez Canal expansion on Aug. 6. Replete with VIPs, the list was topped by French President Francois Hollande, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon and royals and other representatives from the Arab states. What is actually important about such lists, however, is not who is invited, but who is not. Representatives of four states in the region were missing from the Egyptian list, and this was apparently not coincidental: Turkey, Iran, Qatar and Israel. Egypt still has accounts to settle with the first three countries. Each of them is a rival, some for longer than others, but that is not the case with Israel. In fact, Israel is actually a close friend, maintaining an intimate, and sometimes very intimate, relationship with Egypt. At least that’s how Jerusalem sees it.

It is quite possible that the problem really lies with the way that the Israeli leadership views the peace with Egypt and its exaggerated expectations. After all, as far as Cairo is concerned, Israel has never been considered anything akin to a sister state. It was and remains a helpful neighbor and nothing more. Over the past few months, Israel’s Foreign Ministry has been hard at work trying to block a resolution submitted by Egypt to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to be put forward for discussion in September. The proposal calls for the condemnation of Israel’s nuclear program and monitoring of that program by international inspectors as well as for a conference on nuclear disarmament in the Middle East. What Egypt is really doing is attempting to shatter Israel’s policy of ambiguity on the issue and to impose the same kind of pressure on Israel that was applied to Iran.

As far as the Egyptians are concerned, Israel has the same status as a mistress. It is only behind closed doors, in the innermost sanctum of the bedroom, that the lover opens up to her, pours out his heart and sometimes even puts his life in her hands. There is nothing to prevent Egypt from exchanging intelligence with Israel or cooperating with it in the fight against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Iran’s influence in the region or Sunni radicals in the Sinai Peninsula. The two countries might even work together to steal a horse or two from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. But all that happens under the cover of night. God forbid that news of it gets out, because if it did, the man would be branded with an indelible mark of shame.

As such, the mistress leads a difficult life, full of uncertainty. On the one hand, her life is stable and relatively easy. She has gotten used to her partner’s soft caresses and the modest gifts he showers upon her. At the same time, however, she longs to take to the streets of the city to declare her love to the world. The problem is that doing so would only put the relationship at risk. As for the man, he is like all other men. He will continue to love his mistress and heap praise on her in the bedroom. Once he leaves the bedchamber, however, he will feel ashamed of himself and try to humiliate his mistress publicly. He will not hesitate to harm her strategic assets. Much later, after years of loving her on the sly, he will present her to the world as the villain and call for her to be punished.

Her fidelity, even during his most difficult moments, will never be enough to change his attitude. Israel is the only one of Egypt’s neighbors that never once turned its back on it in the past few years of the national trauma called the Arab Spring. Everyone betrayed the Egyptian Sphinx, apart from its mistress. Gaza turned into a volatile barrel of explosives, right in Egypt’s backyard. Libya has been torn apart, and its weapons depots are now being used to support terrorist actions against the regime. Sudan is making deals with Iran (which has since stepped back from it). Ethiopia has tried to exploit Egypt’s weakness by increasing its share of water from the Nile, that vital artery that even now barely provides enough water for Egypt’s 90 million people. Only Israel has maintained its fidelity to Egypt and continued to defend its honor, despite all the blows and setbacks it has suffered, even when its own people were put in harm's way.

This last incident happened when a mob attacked the Israeli Embassy in Cairo in September 2011. The episode very nearly ended in the lynching of the six Israeli representatives, who stayed there at the time. Jerusalem later complained that it had been forced to urgently involve the White House to pressure the Egyptian leadership into extricating its people and prevent disaster. In summer 2014, during the Gaza war, Cairo was asked to serve as a mediator and restore calm. While doing so, however, Egypt began settling accounts with Hamas, which ended up adding fuel to the already full-blown fire. Not only did Israel find itself in a war against Hamas, it also paid a steep price for getting caught up in a battle of passions being waged by its neighbors. Though a cease-fire was eventually reached, it was mostly through the coaxing of Washington and Abbas.

Israel knows that its credit in Cairo is limited, but it makes do with what it has. Maybe Jewish history has accustomed it to being maltreated and harassed, teaching it to accept what little it receives with gratitude. It has had 36 years since the Camp David peace treaty to pound on the table and demand its fair share, but it continues to make do with the crumbs. Evidently, in such cases, the mistress finds it hard to believe that she deserves more. She is prepared to bear the deprivation in exchange for a few tender hours with her lover.

It is not Israel’s political or security establishment that really needs or deserves to get more out of Egypt. It already gets more or less what it needs. Maybe that’s why it doesn’t demand more for the rest of Israeli society, including the Israeli people writ large. The peace treaty between Cairo and Jerusalem is nothing more than a business contract, an alliance of armed forces intended primarily to serve narrow interests. It is an agreement between governments, not people. As a consequence, all that people on both sides can do is collect the crumbs.

It is time for this mistress to stop hiding in the closet. It is time for her to get her lover’s attention outside the narrow confines and confidences of the bedchamber. This will only happen, however, if she herself demands it. She has nothing to fear. After all, they both need each other, and their love benefits everyone around them. Her lover has had a harrowing time over the past few years, so she could be right in waiting until he recovers. Still, they are about to mark their 40th anniversary together. That is more than enough time for soul-searching and a good basis for them to take their relationship to the next level.

Join hundreds of Middle East professionals with Al-Monitor PRO.

Business and policy professionals use PRO to monitor the regional economy and improve their reports, memos and presentations. Try it for free and cancel anytime.

Already a Member? Sign in


The Middle East's Best Newsletters

Join over 50,000 readers who access our journalists dedicated newsletters, covering the top political, security, business and tech issues across the region each week.
Delivered straight to your inbox.


What's included:
Our Expertise

Free newsletters available:

  • The Takeaway & Week in Review
  • Middle East Minute (AM)
  • Daily Briefing (PM)
  • Business & Tech Briefing
  • Security Briefing
  • Gulf Briefing
  • Israel Briefing
  • Palestine Briefing
  • Turkey Briefing
  • Iraq Briefing

Premium Membership

Join the Middle East's most notable experts for premium memos, trend reports, live video Q&A, and intimate in-person events, each detailing exclusive insights on business and geopolitical trends shaping the region.

$25.00 / month
billed annually

Become Member Start with 1-week free trial
What's included:
Our Expertise AI-driven

Memos - premium analytical writing: actionable insights on markets and geopolitics.

Live Video Q&A - Hear from our top journalists and regional experts.

Special Events - Intimate in-person events with business & political VIPs.

Trend Reports - Deep dive analysis on market updates.

Text Alerts - Be the first to get breaking news, exclusives, and PRO content.

All premium Industry Newsletters - Monitor the Middle East's most important industries. Prioritize your target industries for weekly review:

  • Capital Markets & Private Equity
  • Venture Capital & Startups
  • Green Energy
  • Supply Chain
  • Sustainable Development
  • Leading Edge Technology
  • Oil & Gas
  • Real Estate & Construction
  • Banking

We also offer team plans. Please send an email to and we'll onboard your team.

Already a Member? Sign in

Start your PRO membership today.

Join the Middle East's top business and policy professionals to access exclusive PRO insights today.

Join Al-Monitor PRO Start with 1-week free trial