Naftali Bennett makes first visit to Egypt by an Israeli PM in a decade

Israel’s prime minister, Naftali Bennett, has met the Egyptian president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, in the first visit to Egypt by an Israeli leader in a decade.

The meeting, which took place in the Red Sea resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh, was described as being designed to discuss “efforts to revive the peace process” between the Israelis and Palestinians.

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which was moribund during former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12 years in office, was further sidelined by a series of deals between Israel and the Gulf states brokered by the Trump administration.

Bennett was invited to meet Sisi last month, during a meeting with the visiting head of Egyptian intelligence, Abbas Kamel, in Jerusalem.

The Israeli prime minister described the meeting as “important and very good”, adding “we have created a foundation for a deep connection for the future”. It was not clear, however, whether any reciprocal visit is planned.

According to a report on Al Arabiya news channel, Egypt was expected offer to host an international peace conference to discuss the issue.

Earlier this month, Sisi held talks with King Abdullah II of Jordan and Abbas in Cairo, where they stressed the need to revive the elusive two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The three leaders said the Palestinians had a right to an independent state, with east Jerusalem as its capital, a plan that Israel staunchly opposes.

The Bennett meeting marks a shift back towards Egypt’s role as a familiar interlocutor between Israelis and Palestinians after the Trump years, during which the former president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner focused more attention on enhancing relations between Israel and Gulf states.

Egypt, in particular its senior intelligence officials, has long acted as a mediator between Hamas in Gaza and Israeli officials, not least in brokering ceasefires during recent repeated periods of conflict around the coastal enclave, most recently during the 11 days of hostilities earlier this year.

Nevertheless, the meeting comes against a backdrop of increased tension with Hamas, with Israeli aircraft striking a series of targets in the Gaza Strip early Monday while Palestinian militants launched rockets into Israel in the third consecutive night of fighting between the sides.

Israeli officials have also suggested that Sisi sees the current initiative as a way of building influence with Washington as well as seeing economic opportunities for reconstruction in Gaza.

“Egypt sees relations with Israel and efforts to rebuild Gaza as a path to the White House,” an Israeli official told Haaretz, adding Cairo “needs it” to deflect international pressure over its human rights record.

That viewpoint was echoed by a Palestinian official. “First of all the Egyptians are working on a number of international fronts,” the official said. “They are reaching out diplomatically on a number of issues at the moment including Libya, Turkey, Ethiopia and relations with the UAE.

“They see the role the Palestinian issue and particularly Gaza can play with Washington and they are putting in a lot of effort and see that effort as helping them on other issues in the region.”

The meeting came as connections between the two countries, frozen during the coronavirus pandemic, also looked set to reopen.

The Taba crossing between Israel and Sinai, an entry point for Israeli tourists to the Sinai resorts, was due to reopen on Monday while Egyptair is also expected to begin operating flights to Israel once again later in the autumn.

Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country, in 1979 became the first Arab state to sign a peace treaty with Israel, after decades of enmity.

The meeting comes as Israel’s foreign minister and Bennett’s coalition partner, Yair Lapid – who will rotate the prime ministership with Bennett – proposed improving living conditions in Gaza and building new infrastructure in exchange for calm from Hamas, aiming to solve the “never-ending rounds of violence”.

“It won’t happen without the support and involvement of our Egyptian partners and without their ability to talk to everyone involved,” he said on Sunday.

The last meeting between an Egyptian president and an Israeli premier was in January 2011, when Hosni Mubarak received Benjamin Netanyahu, weeks before Mubarak was toppled in a popular revolution.

In the political turbulence that followed, relations between the two countries deteriorated as protests were staged outside the Israeli embassy in Cairo in 2011.

Israel and Egypt are two of Washington’s main allies in the Middle East and are the largest recipients of US military aid, and they have worked together on security issues.

Popular sentiment on the ground in Egypt has also toned down from being resolutely hostile towards Israel, amid a more severe crackdown on dissent under Sisi.

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