Bennett meets Sisi on Israeli prime minister’s first trip to Egypt in a decade

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Israel’s Naftali Bennett met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on Monday, in the first visit to the North African country by a prime minister of the Jewish state in more than a decade.

Sisi received Bennett at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, where they discussed “efforts to reactivate the peace process” between Israelis and Palestinians, said presidential spokesman Bassam Radi.

Security cooperation between the two countries was also discussed at the meeting attended by Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel and Israel’s national security adviser Eyal Holata, according to Radi.

Bennett said before returning home that the meeting helped create “a foundation for deep ties in the future” between Egypt and Israel.

The talks addressed “a series of issues in the diplomatic, security and economic spheres” and “ways to deepen ties and strengthen the interests of our countries,” he said.

A statement from his office said Bennett also praised Egypt’s “significant role” in bringing security to the Gaza Strip “and finding a solution to the problem of the captives and missing (Israelis).”

Egypt was the first Arab country in 1979 to sign a peace treaty with Israel, after decades of enmity.

In May, he played a key role in mediating a ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas that rules the Gaza Strip, after 11 days of deadly fighting.

Egypt regularly hosts Hamas leaders, as well as its political rival, the Palestinian Authority, led by Mahmoud Abbas, while maintaining strong diplomatic, economic and security ties with Israel.

Reliving the peace talks

The talks also addressed regional issues, including Iran’s nuclear program, an Israeli diplomatic source told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Israel’s Foreign Minister Yair Lapid proposed on Sunday to improve living conditions in Gaza and build new infrastructure in exchange for the calm from Hamas.

But “it will not happen without the support and participation of our Egyptian partners and without their ability to speak to everyone involved,” he said.

Bennett’s visit came about 10 days after Abbas was in Cairo to speak with Sisi.

Monday’s talks mark “an important step in light of the growing economic and security relations between the two countries, and their mutual concern about the situation in Gaza,” Cairo-based analyst Nael Shama told AFP.

It also fits in with “Egypt’s plans to reactivate political talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority,” he added.

Bennett, a right-wing religious nationalist, took office in June, ending Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12 consecutive years as Israel’s prime minister.

The last meeting between an Egyptian president and an Israeli prime minister dates back to January 2011, when Hosni Mubarak received Netanyahu, weeks before Mubarak was overthrown in a popular revolution.

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

The one-year reign of Egypt’s Islamist President Mohamed Morsi from 2012 also turned out to be icy, as Israel was suspicious of its Muslim Brotherhood’s close ties to Hamas.

Security cooperation

Sisi has repositioned Egypt as a regional bulwark of stability, echoing the frequent peace summits overseen by Mubarak before his overthrow.

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

Sisi, in a 2019 interview on CBS, acknowledged that Egypt’s military was working closely with Israel in the fight against “terrorists” in restless North Sinai.

He underscored the “wide range of Cairo’s cooperation with the Israelis.”

The relationship developed after Egypt regained sovereignty over the Sinai Peninsula, which Israel occupied in the 1967 Six-Day War.

Egyptian forces have for years battled an insurgency in the Sinai, led mainly by a local affiliate of the Islamic State group.

The two neighbors have also deepened their ties in the energy field. Since last year, Egypt has received natural gas from Israel to liquefy it and re-export it to Europe.

Popular sentiment on the ground in Egypt, where the 1979 treaty is considered a “cold peace”, has dimmed from being decidedly hostile toward Israel, amid a harsher crackdown on dissent under Sisi.

“Sisi has managed to tame the opposition and absorb other political movements,” said Cairo University political science professor Mustapha Kamel al-Sayyid.

Israel last year agreed normalization agreements with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan under the aegis of the Donald Trump administration.

(AFP)