Exuding warmth, Egypt’s Sissi hosts PM for talks, in first such visit in decade

Sissi welcomes Bennett in Sharm el-Sheikh, poses with both countries’ flags in background; trip comes amid high Gaza tensions; EgyptAir is set to publicly fly Tel Aviv-Cairo route

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

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in Sharm el-Sheikh — on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula — on Monday, at a markedly warm summit.

The Monday meeting marked the first public visit of an Israeli premier to Egypt in more than a decade, since former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu met former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

A spokesman for the Egyptian presidency said ahead of the talks that the two leaders were to “discuss bilateral issues related to bilateral relations, ways and efforts to revive the peace process as well as recent developments in the region and international arenas.”

An El Al flight carrying the prime minister departed from Tel Aviv to Sharm el-Sheikh early Monday afternoon. Bennett was expected to return home to Israel later on Monday.

Bennett was invited to visit Egypt and meet with Sissi last month, during a meeting he held with Egyptian intelligence head Abbas Kamel in Jerusalem. The prime minister said last month that he had accepted the invitation, and would soon visit in order “to strengthen and expand relations between the countries in the region.”

The meeting saw a rare smiling photo of the two leaders. Even more surprising, an Israeli flag stood behind Bennett, in contrast to previous meetings between Israeli and Egyptian premiers.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (L) and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi meet on Monday, September 13, 2021 in Sharm el-Sheikh (Credit: Egyptian Presidency).

“We’re seeing a formal announcement by the president’s spokesperson. We haven’t seen this for some time. The attitude is: this is a prime minister, and a president, and it’s all normal, and all according to protocol. That’s what’s new here, ” said Yitzhak Levanon, a former Israeli ambassador to Egypt.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York on September 27, 2018. (PMO)

Bennett’s visit to Egypt comes amid heightened tensions between Israel and terror groups in Gaza, with three rocket attacks in as many days drawing retaliatory Israeli airstrikes.

Egypt in recent months has tried to more publicly play the role of responsible, effective broker between Israel and Hamas. Cairo played a central role in negotiating the ceasefire that ended the May Israel-Gaza war after 11 days and has worked since to advance a long-term ceasefire as well as a prisoner exchange between Israel and Hamas.

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

Earlier this month, the London-based Rai al-Youm online newspaper reported that Sissi was also leading a push to jumpstart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

The report, which said Egypt was set to host Israeli, Palestinian, American, European and Arab officials to discuss the proposal, came days after Sissi hosted Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Jordan’s King Abdullah II for talks.

Shortly before news of Bennett’s trip was revealed, Israel announced it was lifting COVID restrictions on the travel of Israelis to the Sinai Peninsula, a popular tourism destination. During Kamel’s visit to Israel last month, the National Security Council announced it had scaled back its security travel advisory for the Sinai for the first time in years.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (right) meets with Abbas Kamel, the director of the Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate, in Jerusalem on August 18, 2021. (Kobi Gideon / GPO)

Meanwhile, EgyptAir, the national airline of Egypt, is scheduled to launch direct Tel Aviv-Cairo flights next month, after years of hiding the flights — mandated by Israel’s 1979 peace treaty with Egypt — through a subsidiary.

The road to Washington leads through Jerusalem

Though he didn’t make a public trip to Egypt in a decade, Bennett’s predecessor Netanyahu and Sissi held several public meetings in New York, typically on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. The former Israeli prime minister was also reported to have paid a secret, unofficial visit to Egypt in 2018.

Levanon, who served as Egypt’s ambassador from 2009 to 2011, was present at the last public meeting between Netanyahu and Mubarak. Netanyahu never formally visited Egypt again, although the two sides met for “working meetings” in secret over the years, Levanon said.

Israel and Egypt have bolstered their diplomatic ties in recent years. The two governments share close security interests in the Gaza Strip —  Egypt, like Israel, sees the enclave’s Hamas rulers as a serious threat — as well as in Sinai and the eastern Mediterranean.

The regional calculus has also been upended over the past year by another development: the Abraham Accords. Four Arab states agreed to various levels of diplomatic ties with Israel under the agreements, removing some of the taboo of normalization, Levanon said.

US President Joe Biden, right, meets with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in the Oval Office of the White House, in Washington, August 27, 2021. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Egypt also sees Israel as an important strategic ally — particularly as US President Joe Biden’s new administration has vowed to crack down on regimes that violate human rights. Cairo is regularly ranked by independent observers as one of the region’s most unfree countries.

“There’s rising criticism in Washington against human rights violations in Egypt, especially with the new Biden administration. Israel has been seen as a path toward Washington’s good graces — that the way to Washington goes through Jerusalem,” said Ofir Winter, an expert in Egyptian-Israeli relations at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

The Egyptian regime led by Sissi has long been wary of the public antagonism such a visit by an Israeli prime minister could entail, Winter said. While Egypt and Israel have been at peace for decades, the relationship has often been unpopular in Egypt and ties have largely involved shared security interests.

But over the past few years, Sissi’s government has strengthened its hold at home, aided by a tightening crackdown on human rights activists and media.

“There’s a new sense of confidence the regime is projecting now at home, towards its domestic audience,” Winter said.

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