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Bennett talks to Egypt’s Sissi for 1st time as PM; they agree to meet

Two leaders discuss regional stability including Gaza Strip ceasefire and improving situation for residents of the Palestinian enclave

A Hamas police officer walks in front of large portraits of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, while Hamas leaders meet with Egypt's intelligence chief Abbas Kamel in Gaza City, May 31, 2021. (Adel Hana/AP)
A Hamas police officer walks in front of large portraits of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, while Hamas leaders meet with Egypt's intelligence chief Abbas Kamel in Gaza City, May 31, 2021. (Adel Hana/AP)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett spoke on Monday with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in what was the first call between the two leaders since the new Israeli government was installed earlier this month, the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement.

Sissi congratulated Bennett on entering office, a move that ousted long-serving former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu who was, until the June 13 confirmation of the new government, the only serving Israeli prime minister that Sissi ever dealt with as president.

Sissi and Bennett agreed to set up a meeting as soon as possible.

During the call the two leaders discussed a broad range of bilateral, regional and international issues, the statement said.

The two praised the peace agreement between the two countries as “a foundation stone for stability in the Middle East for more than 40 years,” the PMO said.

Bennett also thanked Egypt for mediating between Israel and the Palestinians, and in particular Cairo’s efforts as a mediator in attempts to find a solution to the matter of the Israeli civilians and the remains of IDF soldiers held by the Hamas terror group in the Gaza Strip.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett leads a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on June 20, 2021. (Alex Kolomoisky/POOL)

Sissi emphasized the need to establish a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip with a view to improving the civil and humanitarian situation of the residents of the Strip, and noted the need to renew the Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic process.

The two leaders also discussed advancing cooperation on economic and trade issues, the statement said.

A statement on behalf of Sissi stressed Egypt’s support for all efforts to reach a fair and permanent solution between Palestinians and Israelis, as well as the importance of Egypt’s efforts to help rebuild Gaza after the recent violence, the Reuters news agency reported.

Egypt has looked to take a leading role in following up on a ceasefire it helped broker last month that halted 11 days of intense fighting between Israel and Gaza, including involvement in reconstruction efforts.

Though bringing an uneasy calm, the ceasefire was disrupted this month by incendiary-carrying balloons from Gaza that started large bushfires in Israel. Under Bennett, Israel responded with airstrikes on Hamas targets and Egypt again stepped in to bring quiet.

On Monday, fuel supplies for Gaza’s sole power station began to cross the border from Israel following last week’s easing of some other restrictions that were imposed during the May fighting.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi speaks during a press conference at the Elysee palace in Paris, France, December 7, 2020. (Michel Euler/AP)

Israel has conditioned a full return to the previous status quo of relative calm — including allowing Qatari cash into the Strip — on progress on a prisoner exchange deal between Jerusalem and Hamas. Qatar provides regular cash injections of millions of dollars to help prop up the Gaza economy and fund infrastructure projects.

Ties between Israel and Egypt have been increasingly public in recent weeks.

At the end of last month, Netanyahu, then still the prime minister, met with the head of Egypt’s intelligence services Abbas Kamel in Jerusalem and held talks centered on shoring up the truce with Hamas.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, hosts Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel at his official residence in Jerusalem, May 30, 2021. (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)

Their meeting came as then foreign minister Gabi Ashkenazi was in Cairo for the first visit by an Israeli foreign minister in 13 years.

Ashkenazi told his Egyptian counterpart, Sameh Shoukry, that Jerusalem would not allow Gaza reconstruction to move ahead without a solution in place for the return of the two civilians and the remains of the soldiers, held in Gaza for the better part of a decade. Hamas hopes to secure the freedom of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails in an exchange.

The terror group, for its part, has demanded the lifting of restrictions without any connection to the potential for a prisoner exchange.

The result is a fragile ceasefire, international observers have warned.

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.

After Sissi seized power in a 2014 coup, Israel’s cooperation with Egypt deepened around security and energy.

According to foreign reports, Israel has helped the Egyptian military crackdown on a jihadist insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula with its own bombing campaign, and Egypt has taken part in efforts to stunt Hamas in Gaza.

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