Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has invited Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to make an official visit to Egypt within the next few weeks, the premier’s office announced Wednesday.
The invitation was relayed to Bennett by Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate chair Abbas Kamel, who was visiting Jerusalem for talks with the prime minister and Defense Minister Benny Gantz.
The meeting with the Egyptian spy chief was the first since Bennett took office in June.
Bennett and Sissi had previously agreed to meet when they spoke by phone shortly after Bennett’s government was sworn in.
The visit would be the first public visit by an Israeli premier since 2011, when prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with president Hosni Mubarak in the Sinai resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh. Netanyahu also reportedly paid a secret, unofficial visit in 2018.
Kamel met with Bennett in Jerusalem at the Prime Minister’s Office, which said the two discussed bilateral ties between the countries and “the matter of Egyptian mediation in the security situation vis-a-vis the Gaza Strip.”
Egypt helped broker the truce that ended the 11-day conflict in May between Israel and Hamas, the terror group that rules Gaza.
Senior defense officials told Zman Yisrael, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew sister publication, that the meeting with Kamel was not connected to ongoing talks over allowing Qatari funds to enter the Gaza Strip.
After meeting with senior Israeli officials, Kamel visited the West Bank city of Ramallah for talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, according to official Palestinian media.
A statement carried by the official PA WAFA news agency said Abbas and the intelligence chief discussed “the developments in the Palestinian territories and ways to strengthen bilateral relations and achieve stability and peace in the region.”
Kamel’s trip comes two days after two rockets were fired from Gaza toward the town of Sderot in a brief flare-up of violence amid a shaky calm in place since the May war. One of the missiles was intercepted by the Iron Dome defense system and the second landed inside the Strip. Israel has so far not responded to the launch.
It also comes ahead of Bennett’s planned trip to Washington, with Egypt seeking to prove to the Biden administration that it plays a key role in securing stability in the region.
Cairo has participated in efforts to secure the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas that it brokered to end the fighting in May.
Following the May conflict, Israel initially said that it would only allow basic humanitarian aid into the beleaguered enclave, unless Hamas released two Israeli civilians it has held in captivity for years, along with the remains of two IDF soldiers. It also conditioned aid to rebuilding Gaza on the matter.
However, in recent days Jerusalem has appeared to soften its stance, gradually scaling back its blockade of Gaza and allowing more and more goods and people into and out of the Strip, at the request of the United Nations and foreign governments.
Israel has so far avoided responding militarily to the rockets fired from Gaza, due to sensitive ongoing negotiations with Hamas that have the potential to reach a breakthrough, Channel 12 news reported Tuesday.
According to the report, which did not cite a source, there is a possibility of a deal that will allow Qatari funds to enter Gaza and could include the release of the Israelis being held by Hamas.
Bennett and Gantz held meetings at the military’s Gaza Division Tuesday. According to the network, IDF intelligence officials and the Shin Bet told the pair that they believe a chance must be given for talks to succeed.
The report said that the rocket fired on Monday was launched by Islamic Jihad members. Hamas quickly arrested them and then conveyed to Israel that it was not behind the rocket fire and was not interested in an escalation of violence, it said.
Discussing Israel’s position on Gaza reconstruction, a senior Israeli official told The Times of Israel recently that while the main players in the talks mediated by Cairo may be Israel and Hamas, Jerusalem has been adamant that the negotiation table be expanded to include Ramallah.
“We are saying that the PA needs to be part of this equation… because it is the moderate faction,” the official argued.
Israel is hoping this approach will result in Ramallah being tasked with distributing Qatari humanitarian aid in Gaza, the official said, while admitting that the matter is dependent on approval from Hamas and Qatar.
PA minister Ahmad Majdalani said earlier this month that officials in Doha and Ramallah agreed on a broad framework to again transfer Qatari funds to the Gaza Strip, but Palestinian banks are holding up its implementation.
Since 2018, Qatar has provided over $300 million in subsidies to Gaza, which is ruled by Doha’s Hamas clients. Israel allowed the funds into the tightly blockaded coastal enclave in exchange for quiet on its southern border.
The Qatari projects funded fuel for Gaza’s only power plant and hospitals to shore up the enclave’s damaged healthcare system. They also brought in hundreds of millions in cash payments to both 100,000 poor Gazan families and to Hamas’s civil servants.
Qatar rejects frequent accusations that the money goes to terror groups in the enclave, saying Israel knows how the money is distributed.
Aaron Boxerman contributed to this report.