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Egypt and Israel in the Mediterranean region

Commentary:  The Mediterranean has long been an opportunity for Israel to deepen its ties with Egypt. Israel needs to develop a comprehensive Mediterranean policy with the aim of expanding the range of common interests with Egypt and other countries beyond the gas sector

An interesting article by Israeli journalist Ophir Winter leads us to express some considerations on the role played by Egypt and Israel in the Mediterranean region.

On January 15, 2020 Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz and his Egyptian counterpart, Tarek al-Mula, announced the start of the natural gas flow from Israel to Egypt.

The joint statement marks a milestone in the relations between the two countries and further shows the increasing importance recently taken on by the Mediterranean region in Egypt’s and Israel’s foreign, security and economic policies.

This trend was also evident in the agenda of the World Youth Forum (WYF) held in Sharm el-Sheikh in December 2019, after the first one organized there in November 2017. In 2019, the WYF met in Sharm el-Sheikh under the auspices of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, with the participation of about seven thousand young people from around the world.

The topic of the Forum’s discussions, which Egypt organized from 2017 to 2019, was to strengthen cooperation between Mediterranean countries in a variety of areas, including energy, employment, climate, science, illegal immigration and the fight against terrorism.

The Forum’s meetings were dedicated to both the Mediterranean countries’ concrete interests and to “softer” aspects, including the common historical and cultural denominators that link the peoples inhabiting the Mediterranean shores. The WYF agenda focused on Egypt’s foreign, security and economic policies and its attempts to position itself as one of the main Axis countries in the region.

Israel was mentioned in the Forum as a vital partner in gas deals with Egypt and as a full member on its side in the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), established in Cairo in January 2019 with the participation of Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Jordan and the Palestinian National Authority.

Israel’s role, however, remains marginal on Mediterranean issues going beyond the gas sector. Therefore, it needs to define a comprehensive Mediterranean policy that will enable it to seize further opportunities to develop its ties with Egypt and other countries in the Mediterranean basin.

In recent years Egypt has attached increasing importance to the Mediterranean region in the light of three main developments:

a) the discovery of the gas field that meets most of Egypt’s gas needs;

(b) the establishment of the EMGF in January 2019 paving the way for Egypt to become the regional energy hub, including its objectives of establishing a regional gas market, developing resources and infrastructure, and deepening coordination and dialogue among Member States;

c) the threat posed by Turkey to the promotion of regional gas cooperation due to its refusal to recognize Cyprus’ maritime borders. The tension between Egypt and Turkey over the maritime boundary demarcation deal signed between Turkey and Fayez al-Sarraj’s Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya has even escalated since November 2019.

A paper published by the Egyptian Center for Strategic Studies (ECSS) on the WYF has noted that gas discoveries in the Eastern Mediterranean create new regional dynamics, including the establishment of economic blocs, multilateral ties, alliances and counter-alliances.

It has also explained that Egypt offers Israel and Cyprus the cheapest alternative to exporting gas to Europe and other markets due to its liquefied gas infrastructure, which can be expanded at a relatively low cost when needed. Egypt, for its part, is interested in raking in a share of profits and strengthening its strategic position as a gas export hub in Europe.

In addition, the Union for the Mediterranean – an intergovernmental organization bringing together 42 countries from Europe and the Mediterranean basin plus Libya as an observer – has discussed ways to tackle the employment crisis in the region, which has 12.5% of its residents unemployed (mostly young people from Southern Mediterranean countries), and environmental challenges including a global warming level which is about 20% higher than the global average.

Another regional challenge is illegal immigration across the Mediterranean. Egypt has highlighted its success in preventing the emigration of illegal migrants from its territory to Europe since 2016. At the same time, it has been argued that there is a need to increase cooperation between the ‘young’ countries of the Southern Mediterranean region (where around 60% of its inhabitants are under 30 years of age) and the ‘ageing’ countries of the Northern Mediterranean region so as to provide an integrative response to the labor market needs in the region.

From Egypt’s perspective, the response includes a series of legal migration flows from the Southern Mediterranean countries to Europe, along with strengthening the security and stability of the Southern Mediterranean countries in a way that makes it easier for them to attract investment and create jobs in their States.

In recent years, Egypt has also been working on building a Mediterranean identity, which is presented to the young Egyptian generation as one of the pillars of the Egyptian personality.

The nurturing and cultivation of a Mediterranean identity expresses Egypt’s desire to project itself in and out of a regional ethos that will serve as a platform to increase interactions in the Mediterranean region and expand its mark of what has been called for millennia the Mother of Nations, the meeting point of continents, countries, religions and civilizations, i.e. the cultural and historical foundations that make the Mediterranean a region and its peoples a community. Israel is not absent from the Mediterranean storytelling promoted and conveyed by Egypt, but its place has so far remained marginal on issues going beyond gas interests.

According to Egypt, the Egypt, Greece and Cyprus triangle is at the heart of Mediterranean cooperation, while Israel is a secondary partner whose role is limited. An ECSS publication has made it clear that Israel could not take part in the periodic military maneuvers conducted by Egypt, Greece and Cyprus, although it shares a similar security concept with the three countries. It has also suggested that its presence would make it difficult to enhance multilateral cooperation in the region.

Despite the traditional political reservations that accompany relations between the two countries, the Mediterranean has long been a new opportunity for Israel to deepen its ties with Egypt. Firstly, it must continue to expand cooperation in the gas and energy sector through its Egyptian partner and develop bilateral resources and infrastructure, multilateral coordination and the EMGF dialogue between government officials, companies and experts from both sides.

Egypt, Israel, Italy, Cyprus, Greece, Jordan and Palestine signed the EMGF Statute on September 22, 2020, turning the Forum into a regional international organization based in Cairo, aimed at facilitating the creation of a regional gas market in the Eastern Mediterranean region and deepening collaboration and strategic dialogue between natural gas producing, transit and consuming countries, in an area that is confirmed to be full of great opportunities. France joined as a full member on March 9 2021, with the United States, the EU and the United Arab Emirates as permanent observers. Countries such as Turkey and the Lebanon are not participating in the Forum due to the persistent tension with Greece and Cyprus and the presence of Israel, respectively.

Apart from the aforementioned agreement, however, Israel needs to develop a comprehensive Mediterranean policy with the aim of expanding the range of common interests with Egypt and other countries beyond the gas sector. To this end, the provision of Israeli inputs to Mediterranean issues such as the environment, renewable energy, water desalination, emergency preparedness, education, science and employment should be explored.

The Union for the Mediterranean can serve as a useful platform for Israeli integration in such regional projects, and Israel should consider allocating more resources and manpower to increase its influence within it.

Furthermore, Israel – like Egypt – can benefit from nurturing and cultivating a Mediterranean identity, emphasizing common denominators for the countries of the region and values of mutual openness, tolerance and acceptance of the others.

Finally, the Union for the Mediterranean itself has the power to encourage interaction between the Mediterranean peoples, as well as youth meetings and cultural exchanges that contribute to shaping the common area.

Giancarlo Elia Valori