Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi arrived in Cairo on Sunday for talks with his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukry, set to focus on the reconstruction of Gaza and a potential prisoner exchange deal with Hamas.
It is the first time in almost 13 years that an Israeli foreign minister has officially visited Egypt, with Tzipi Livni the last to do so in December 2008.
The talks will deal with strengthening bilateral ties as well as efforts to bolster the ceasefire between Israel and Palestinian terror group Hamas following an 11-day round of intense fighting earlier this month in and around the Gaza Strip.
Ashkenazi tweeted that amid the discussions on reconstruction in Gaza, it should be emphasized that Israel is “above all” committed to the return of Israeli captives held by Hamas in Gaza.
On Saturday, the London-based Al-Araby Al-Jadeed newspaper reported that Egypt had notified Hamas that Israel maintains that any long-term truce negotiations must include the subject of a prisoner exchange between the sides.
Hamas has so far insisted on separating prisoner negotiations from any discussions related to a potential long-term truce or the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip.
Two Israeli civilians and the bodies of two Israel Defense Forces soldiers are currently being held in Gaza. Avera Mengistu and Hisham a-Sayed entered the Strip of their own accord, and their families say they suffer from mental illness. Hamas is also holding the bodies of Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, two IDF soldiers who were killed during the 2014 Gaza war.
Netanyahu and the Israeli government came under harsh criticism for not demanding a prisoner swap as part of the original deal to end the recent fighting.
Sources told Al-Araby Al-Jadeed that Cairo informed Hamas of the prisoner swap request after Israel linked it to any further negotiations.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz said last week that Israel will not permit the full reconstruction of Gaza or the entry of any aid that is not humanitarian, until the terror group releases the two Israeli civilians and the two bodies.
Hamas officials in the terror group told the Lebanese Al-Akhbar newspaper in response that they “cannot be blackmailed.”
Also on Sunday, the head of the Egyptian intelligence service, Abbas Kamel, flew to Tel Aviv for talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, as well as other senior security officials.
Kamel will also visit Ramallah to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas before meeting with Hamas leaders in Ramallah for further talks on stabilizing the ceasefire, an Egyptian official said. Israel’s Army Radio said that Egypt was hoping that Israel and the PA would restart formal talks on policy in the wake of the visit.
An Egyptian official said Kamel would discuss with Netanyahu and the Palestinian Authority how to rebuild Gaza.
The discussions with Israeli officials also are expected to touch on a set of measures that would allow materials, electricity and fuel into the territory, as well as the possible expansion of the maritime space allowed for Gaza fishermen, the official said.
“The role of the Palestinian Authority is central in the talks,” he said. “Egypt is seeking to have it deeply involved in the reconstruction process.”
The Egyptian official, who had close knowledge of the proceedings that led to the ceasefire, spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t allowed to brief reporters.
The official said Egypt would offer guarantees that rebuilding funds will not find its way to Hamas, possibly going through an international committee led by Egypt or the United Nations that would oversee the spending.
Kamel will also discuss the situation in Jerusalem and ways to water down tensions in the holy city, including an ease of Israeli restrictions at the Temple Mount and how to prevent the planned eviction of Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem.
The talks would also look into the possibility of a prisoner exchange, the official said.
Israel and Egypt have had a fraught relationship since signing a peace deal in 1979. Ties have never been warm, and in 2011, Egyptian protesters stormed an outer wall of the Israeli embassy in the capital’s Giza district, forcing the evacuation of its diplomatic staff. In 2015, Israel reopened its mission in a new location in Cairo’s Maadi neighborhood.
The previous Israeli ambassador to Cairo, David Govrin, and his staff were forced to work from Israel for eight months in 2016-7 due to unspecified security threats. Diplomatic activity was further hampered when Israel’s political crisis caused a situation where for over a year there was no full-time ambassador until current envoy Amira Oron took up the post last September.
Emanuel Fabian contributed to this report.