An Egyptian border guard shot and killed three Israeli soldiers at a Sinai border post on Saturday. The incident has shocked the Israeli public. And it has cast some doubt on the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel, which has endured for more than three decades but is often characterized as cold.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el Sisi should seize the moment and pay his respects to the victims' families in Israel.
Such a dramatic gesture is not without precedent: In 1997, a Jordanian soldier opened fire on a group of Israeli schoolgirls visiting the "Isle of Peace," a parcel of farmland previously under Israeli jurisdiction that Jordan leased back to Israel as part of the Oslo peace process. In a remarkable display of humanity, King Hussein of Jordan, who had only three years earlier signed a peace agreement with Israel, traveled to the Jewish state to mourn with the families of the seven girls who died in the massacre.
That massacre unfolded as a diplomatic cold front descended on Jerusalem and Amman. Days before the shooting, Hussein sent a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decrying the construction of a new Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem. "My distress is genuine and deep over the accumulating tragic actions which you have initiated," the king bemoaned. He warned peace with the Palestinians "appear[ed] more and more like a distant elusive mirage" and that "the very lives of all Arabs and Israels" were "fast sliding toward an abyss of bloodshed and disaster."
Yet a week later, Hussein flipped the script. "I feel as if I have lost a child of my own," Hussein lamented. He told the parents of one of the victims that the tragedy "affects us all as members of one family."
Hussein's spontaneous visit not only proved that Jordan's king valued the diplomatic agreement it had signed with Israel, but it also had the effect of spurring movement in the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Speaking at a joint press conference during Hussein's visit, Netanyahu said he was confident he could "reach an agreement" with the king and move ahead with talks between Israel and the Palestinians, mediated by the Jordanians. The Israeli leader also confirmed that he and Hussein spoke with then-Palestinian President Yasser Arafat over the phone and that measures were "being implemented as we speak" to reengage in diplomacy.
Of course, these overtures fell short of helping the Palestinians and Israelis reach peace. But it was not for a lack of trying.
Nearly 30 years later, tragedy has again befallen Israel. The Egyptian assailant infiltrated Israel and opened fire on two Israeli soldiers. He killed one more Israeli in a shootout that ultimately claimed his life. Israeli soldiers busted a cross-border smuggling operation at the site of the incident hours before the deadly rampage, raising suspicion that the violence was an act of revenge, according to the Israel Defense Forces.
Egypt, which made peace with Israel in 1979, plays an important role in the Middle East as the broker of calm between Israel and Iran-backed terrorist groups. Over the last decade, Israel and Egypt have also cooperated to root out jihadi terrorism in the Sinai Peninsula.
While security cooperation remains strong, the bilateral relationship is still rather frosty outside the military domain. True normalization between the two nations is elusive. A survey in 2021 found that only 8% of Egyptians support "business or sports contacts" with Israel. With a visit to Israel, Sisi can move beyond the cold pragmatism that largely defines Egyptian-Israeli relations and recast himself as a world figure ready to embrace his diplomatic partners as human beings. At a personal level, the Egyptian leader can win international acclaim for such a move rather than criticism for his country's poor human rights record.
Egypt would also be building upon the regional normalization trends. Cairo is a key participant in the Negev Summit, which is a structure put in place to advance the 2020 Abraham Accords. A visit by Sisi to Israel would demonstrate a commitment to this process well beyond what Egypt has demonstrated to date.
In 1997, the Israeli public watched Hussein travel to Israel on a live broadcast. The grandfather of a victim can be seen offering Hussein bread as he welcomes the king into his home. "Welcome, welcome, king of peace," he said in Arabic. "God bless you and your family."
Sisi should watch this episode of history with the understanding that such gestures can change his legacy. More importantly, they can change the trajectory of peace and diplomacy in the Middle East.
Natalie Ecanow is a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Jonathan Schanzer is senior vice president for research. Follow Jon on Twitter @JSchanzer. FDD is a nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.