An imploding Middle East would seem an unlikely setting for finally realizing the Zionist dream of progress toward normalization with Israel’s neighbors. So I had to rub my eyes when I read the following report: Last week, Israel and Egypt ran a joint booth at the world’s biggest apparel trade fair, in Las Vegas. In addition, they’re discussing plans to double textile exports from the Egyptian-Israeli Qualifying Industrial Zone, and also to expand the zone to other products, like foodstuffs and plastics. Given that normalization with Israel has long been anathema in Egypt, this is an astounding turnabout.
The QIZ, which the U.S. created 10 years ago in order to bolster Egyptian-Israeli peace by encouraging economic collaboration, allows Egypt to export textiles to America duty-free if Israel contributes a certain percentage of their value. But until now, Egypt has kept its cooperation with Israel as low-profile and limited as possible due to the sweeping consensus against normalization.
After all, this is a country where a leading author was expelled from the writers’ union and saw his books banned for the “crime” of traveling to Israel and writing about his experiences. It’s a country where translated Israeli books sparked such outrage that the culture minister had to defend himself from accusations of “normalization” by saying the translations were intended only to enable Egyptians to “know their enemy” and promising that the project would involve no contact with Israeli publishers, but only with the Israeli authors’ foreign publishers. It’s a country where every candidate in the 2012 presidential election vowed to either scrap or “renegotiate” the peace treaty with Israel. And none of this was long ago.
Yet now, suddenly, Egypt is running a joint booth with Israel at a trade fair and discussing ways to expand the QIZ.
In part, this may indicate that Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi is more serious about trying to improve his country’s battered economy than he’s often given credit for–to the point that he’s even willing to bolster cooperate with Israel to do so, despite the risk of antagonizing the anti-normalization trolls, who quite definitely still exist.
Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine this happening without the growing recognition that Egypt and Israel face a common enemy: the Islamist terrorists in the Sinai and their Palestinian collaborators from Gaza. As a result, not only has security cooperation between the two defense establishments never been closer, but attitudes have also begun changing among ordinary Egyptians. During last summer’s war in Gaza, for instance, some Egyptian media commentators openly rooted for Israel to defeat Hamas (which an Egyptian court has since declared a terrorist organization).
Just how much Egypt’s enemy list has changed in recent years was somewhat ironically highlighted by a front-page article in the daily Al Ahram last week, after ISIS killed 21 Egyptian Copts in Libya and the Obama administration refused to support Egypt’s retaliatory airstrikes. In the best tradition of Egyptian conspiracy theories, the article accused Qatar, Turkey, and the U.S. of collaborating to sow “chaos and destruction” in Egypt. Notably absent from the list was the usual suspect–the one that used to routinely figure as the villain in every Egyptian conspiracy theory, like the 2010 classic that blamed the Mossad for shark attacks on Sinai beaches.
Having long since despaired of the dream that the cold peace with Egypt would someday thaw into normalization, most Israelis figured the new and improved security coordination was as good as it gets and expected nothing more. And yet, improbably, more seems to be happening. After all, it’s hard to imagine anything more “normalized” than a joint booth at a trade fair. And it offers hope that just maybe, something good can emerge from the current Mideast madness.
Originally published in Commentary on February 25, 2015