PM may seek to forge unified front against delisting of IRGC

Bennett in Egypt for first-ever trilateral summit with Sissi and UAE crown prince

PM flies to Sharm el-Sheikh for unannounced visit, as US nears signing of Iran nuclear deal — a move generally supported by Cairo and Abu Dhabi, but opposed by Jerusalem

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

(From R-L) Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, and UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed. (Collage/AP)
(From R-L) Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, and UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed. (Collage/AP)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was in Egypt on Monday for the first-ever trilateral summit of Israeli, Egyptian and Emirati leaders, an Egyptian official told The Times of Israel, confirming the premier’s unannounced visit to the Sinai resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh.

Bennett first met with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi shortly after arriving in the city, the official said. The Prime Minister’s Office has yet to comment on the trip, which comes days after Israel announced the inauguration of a new flight route between Ben Gurion Airport and Sharm el-Sheikh.

Flights are expected to start as early as next month, during the week of the Passover holiday. The news was widely covered by Israeli media, though it was barely mentioned in the Egyptian press.

Bennett last met with Sissi in September, in what was the first such summit between Israeli and Egyptian leaders in more than a decade. The premier met with UAE Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan in December, when he made the first-ever visit by an Israeli prime minister to the Gulf country.

Bin Zayed also landed in Sharm el-Sheikh Monday, days after hosting Syrian President Bashar Assad — a move harshly condemned by the Biden administration, which has thus far resisted joining efforts by a growing number of Mideast leaders to normalize the dictator.

The trilateral summit will mark the latest development in the Abraham Accords, which saw Israel normalize relations with the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco in 2020 agreements brokered by the Trump administration. While the Biden administration so far has been unable to expand those accords, it has exerted effort in wrapping Egypt and Jordan — which already had ties with Israel — into them.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (left) and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi meet, on September 13, 2021, in Sharm el-Sheikh. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

The normalization agreements have seen the solidification of a bloc of Middle Eastern countries interested in countering Iran’s influence in the region. Monday’s meeting comes against the backdrop of the nuclear talks between Iran and world powers in Vienna that are widely believed to be nearing a resolution.

The Iran nuclear deal will therefore surely be on the agenda in Sharm el-Sheikh, as Israel seeks to further coordinate with its Arab allies on the issue. While Jerusalem vehemently opposes a joint US-Iran return to the agreement officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Cairo and Abu Dhabi are both seen as more amenable to the deal’s revival. Both are concerned about Iran’s support of proxies throughout the region, but have maintained that Iran is able to race toward a bomb absent any agreement.

However, Bennett may use the summit to rally Egypt and the UAE’s support for his public campaign against reported US plans to delist Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terror group.

On Friday, he and Lapid issued a joint statement expressing concern over the potential move, saying “even now, the IRGC terrorist organization is trying to murder certain Israelis and Americans around the world. Unfortunately, there is still determination to sign the nuclear deal with Iran at almost any cost – including saying that the world’s largest terrorist organization is not a terrorist organization. This is too high a price.”

In response, a US official told The Times of Israel that the US is “prepared to make difficult decisions to return Iran’s nuclear program to JCPOA limits,” not denying that delisting the IRGC was potentially on the table.

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