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A street runs along the Egypt-Israel border security barrier near the Red Sea resort city of Eilat, southern Israel. / Ariel Schalit, AP

CAIRO ?? Since army strongman Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ousted an Islamist leader from power last year and efforts to battle militant violence were boosted under his command, relations between Egypt and Israel have improved and are expected to strengthen with his anticipated ascent to the presidency, say experts.

"The relations dramatically improved with the removal of President (Mohamed) Morsi," said Robert Springborg, an expert on the Egyptian military and a visiting professor in the Department of War Studies at King's College London.

"For the time being and foreseeable future, this relationship would be one of the stronger ones," he said. "If you compare it to [Egypt's] relations with Sudan, and with the other bordering states, the relationship with Israel is much better."

Ties between Egypt and Israel date to 1979, when both nations signed a peace treaty that ended decades of conflict between the two countries. A cold peace was maintained under Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who came to power two years later, and during his 30-year rule the countries were strategic partners in the region.

Relations grew strained in 2011 under Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which took power that year after an uprising ousted Mubarak. During its rule, authorities lost control of a stretch of land that borders Israel, leading to rising militant activity that threatened to draw the nations into conflict. In September that year, thousands of protesters stormed Cairo's Israeli embassy, forcing the ambassador and staff to flee.

When the Muslim Brotherhood's Morsi was elected president in 2012, he upheld the peace treaty with Israel and security and military ties remained. But the Israelis were very apprehensive about the Brotherhood, said experts, particularly regarding the movement's ties to Hamas, the U.S.-designated terrorist group that governs the Gaza Strip and is a staunch adversary of Israel.

And while the Brotherhood's formal agenda didn't alter much in terms of relations between Egypt and Israel, many Brotherhood leaders were bitter toward the Jewish state, said Ephraim Kam, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

"They would talk about Israel as an enemy, as a threat, that it should not be recognized," he said. "The view was negative, was hostile."

Conversely, the military regime governing Egypt for the past 10 months, since former defense minister al-Sisi unseated Morsi last July, "regards Israel as a strategic asset for Egypt, not as a negative element," Kam said.

There are also more common interests between the two countries now, particularly because of a spike in militant violence in the Sinai Peninsula, Kam said.

"They both feel the need to keep control of the peninsula and from this viewpoint they find some strategic, important cooperation in military command between the two governments," he added.

The Sinai Peninsula is a massive stretch of desert terrain in Egypt's east that borders Israel and the Gaza Strip. Its northern portion has proved largely lawless over the past three years as militant violence grew rife and a vibrant tunnel trade allowing for movement of people, weapons and goods under the border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip continued.

Since 2011, weapons from Libya poured into the region and many militants freed from Egypt's prisons have settled in the peninsula, experts said. Now, Islamic militants attack security forces in the Sinai almost daily. Earlier this year they shot down an Egyptian military helicopter with a surface-to-air missile, and several times since 2011 they have waged cross-border attacks into Israel.

Naturally, the Israelis are concerned, Springborg said.

"The reports that I have had of a first-hand sort suggest that the Israelis are very pleased with the security cooperation they were getting from the military under Sisi and presumably now under Sedki Sobhi," Springborg said, referring to Egypt's new defense minister.

Egypt and Israel "see eye to eye, and it's been reported to me by Israelis who are well informed that they would very much like to see the relationship expanded and solidified in whatever ways the Egyptian government would like to do so," Springborg said.

Details of security cooperation between Egypt and Israel are unclear. Analysts have said the countries share intelligence and that Israelis have allowed Egypt to deploy more troops in the Sinai than is typically permitted by terms of the peace treaty. That has happened more than once since 2011, including under Morsi.

Last August, reports said an Israeli drone strike killed five suspected Islamic militants in the Sinai in cooperation with Egyptian authorities.

The Israel Defense Forces did not confirm the reports.

"The only thing I can say about that is that the IDF is not involved in any way in the recent events taking place within Egypt and the Sinai," said an Israeli military official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We're following them, naturally, and we're looking for potential consequences toward us that affect us, but we're not involved."

Since Morsi was ousted, security forces in the North Sinai have seized weapons, raided suspected militant hideouts and killed and arrested suspected jihadists in an ongoing military campaign aimed at battling militancy, according to local news media. And while some tunnels linking Egypt and Gaza were destroyed during Morsi's presidency, efforts were bolstered after his ouster.

Counterterrorism is a central feature of Egypt's government now and it will be for the foreseeable future, particularly if al-Sisi is elected president in a poll to be held at the end of May, Springborg said. Those who feel threatened by Islamist-inspired terrorism and insurgency are going to see common cause, and Egypt and Israel will continue to be driven together by their shared opposition to Islamist-inspired violence, he said.

But the Egyptian government has to be careful about appearing to be close to Israel, heralded an enemy by many Egyptians and Arab states. Any blatant signs of cooperation could undermine authorities in Egypt.

Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy, said one of the grievances against Mubarak's regime was that he had become too close to the U.S. and Israel, and wasn't standing up for Egyptian national interests.

"Even if you do see an improved relationship, that's certainly not something that the Egyptian military wants to convey to the population," Hamid said. "The popularity of Sisi and the military is tied to Egyptian hyper-nationalism, and anti-Israel sentiment is going to be part of that."

Egypt so far has avoided any real public sign of a friendlier relationship ?? but that may change, Hamid said.

"If Sisi becomes president, at some point he's going to have to engage with the Israelis in one way or another as Egypt's head of state. That's going to be a delicate dance," he added.



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: Israel, Egypt getting along great these days

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