JERUSALEM – In the latest sign of improved ties between Israel and Egypt, an Egyptian foreign minister made an official visit to Israel for the first time in nine years on Sunday.
Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry was in Jerusalem for meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The two leaders discussed the recently reached reconciliation deal between Turkey and Israel, agreements regarding natural gas in the Mediterranean Sea, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and other issues.
Two weeks ago, Shoukry met with Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah. He confirmed on Sunday that the earlier meeting was linked to an Egyptian effort to mediate in the peace process.
At the start of the meeting, Netanyahu noted that nearly four decades have passed since Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty. During a press conference he described Israel’s relationships with Egypt and Jordan as “the cornerstone of stability in the region” and “critical assets for our countries.”
He added that he was ready and willing to take up an offer by Egypt to take a leadership role in peace talks. He cited the track records of both Egypt and Jordan as an example for the PA to follow.
“Today I call again on the Palestinians to follow the greatest example of Egypt and Jordan and join us for direct negotiations,” he said. “This is the only way we can address all the outstanding problems between us, and turn the vision of peace based on two states for two peoples into a reality.”
Shoukry said “the situation of the Middle East is becoming ever more volatile and dangerous, particularly as the phenomenon of terrorism continues to grow and proliferate, representing an existential threat to the peoples of the region and the world at large. No person, group or people are exempt; none are immune from this threat.”
Addressing Netanyahu, the Egyptian minister said that “ever since the cessation of negotiations between the Palestinian and Israeli sides in April 2014, the situation on the ground has been in constant deterioration, be it on the humanitarian, economic, or security level…. The current state of affairs unfortunately is neither stable nor sustainable…. I would like to assure that Egypt’s commitment to supporting a just, comprehensive and sustainable resolution for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and to supporting peace and security in the Middle East is a steadfast and unwavering commitment, and that the Egyptian leadership is serious in its determination to provide all possible forms of support in order to achieve this goal.”
The Israeli-Egyptian relationship has long been a “cold” one, and the latter years of the Hosni Mubarak regime saw few meaningful diplomatic interactions. Israel did intermittently look to Cairo to help ease tensions with the Palestinians, but there was little if any public interaction between officials of the two countries.
Under the Muslim Brotherhood government that followed Mubarak’s departure in 2011, relations deteriorated further, due largely to the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideological opposition to Israel and its close affiliation with Hamas. The terrorist group, which had seized control of Gaza from Abbas’s PA by force in 2007, was originally established as a Palestinian branch of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, on a platform sworn to Israel’s destruction.
But under the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Egypt has moved ahead with a significant, if low-key, security relationship with Israel, especially focused on the Sinai peninsula, where Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)-affiliated terrorists are operating.
Israeli officials have also praised Egypt for cracking down on Hamas’s smuggling tunnels between Gaza and the Sinai, and Netanyahu and el-Sisi speak by phone frequently. (In public forums like the UN Human Rights Council, Egypt continues to criticize Israel harshly.)
Sunday’s meeting was held at el-Sisi’s behest.
There has been a push in recent months by the so-called Mideast Quartet and the French government to restart the peace process. A recent report by the Quartet – comprised of the U.S., Russia, European Union and United Nations – was panned by both the Israelis and Palestinians.
It pointed to Israel’s continued expansion of settlements in disputed territory and the PA’s inability to control the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. The statement also scolded both sides for violence and incitement.
Despite international efforts, including a concerted push in recent years by Secretary of State John Kerry, both sides have rebuffed external pressure to resume talks, each accusing the other of responsibility for the stall.
“Evidently, certain parties of the international community insist on trying to avoid their own legal and moral responsibilities to implement international law and conventions,” PLO secretary-general Saeb Erekat told the Palestinian news agency Ma’an after the report was published.
Netanyahu has repeatedly said he wants to advance peace in the region. Following a meeting in Rome with Kerry and other foreign representatives two weeks ago, he reiterated his position.
“The world and the Middle East are in turmoil and my policy is to create centers of stability in this unstable and stormy region,” he said at the time.
He added that Israel wants to work in cooperation with neighboring Arab countries, as well as Greece, Cyprus, Russia, Turkey, and the United States, referring to “a clear strategy, to create centers of stability in the stormy Middle East.”