Egypt foreign minister makes rare visit for Netanyahu meet
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Egypt foreign minister makes rare visit for Netanyahu meet

Trip to Jerusalem by Sameh Shoukry intended to help Cairo push forward peace initiatives; Netanyahu says visit, first by top Egyptian diplomat since 2007, heralds ‘change’ in ties

Dov Lieber is The Times of Israel's Arab affairs correspondent.

Sameh Shoukry meeting with John Kerry, not pictured, in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt on April 15, 2015. (US State Department)
Sameh Shoukry meeting with John Kerry, not pictured, in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt on April 15, 2015. (US State Department)

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry made a rare visit to Jerusalem Sunday to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during which they were to discuss Cairo’s recommendations for settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Egyptian officials said.

The move came two weeks after Shoukry made his first trip to Ramallah to meet with the Palestinian leadership as Egypt has positioned itself as a central player in jump-starting moribund peace efforts and as Jerusalem and Cairo have been enjoying nearly unprecedentedly warm ties.

The foreign minister was sent to Jerusalem to discuss the advancement of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians and specifically the sticking points between the two sides, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confirmed the visit and said he would hold two meetings with Shoukry later Sunday.

“I will meet him this afternoon and again in the evening,” Netanyahu said at the start of his weekly cabinet meeting. “This visit is important for many reasons. It shows a change in Israel-Egypt ties — including the important call by President Sissi to advance the peace process, both with the Palestinians and Arab states.”

Netanyahu said Shoukry had been sent to Israel at the behest of the Egyptian president, making the first visit by a top Egyptian diplomat to Israel since 2007.

The ministry said the meeting comes at an important time following the launching of Egyptian efforts by Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sissi to find a complete and just solution to the conflict that will see Palestinians forming an independent state along the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as their capital and peace and security for Israel.

The statement said they will hold “lengthy talks about bilateral relations and regional developments but with an emphasis on the Palestinian issue.”

Shoukry and Netanyahu were also to reportedly discuss Egyptian-Israeli coordination over the search of the wreckage of the Egypt Air plane recovered off the coast of Netanya Thursday, as well as security coordination in the Sinai, where both countries have a shared interest putting down an Islamic State insurgency.

Egyptian sources told Palestinian news outlet Ma’an, which first reported the visit, that the Egyptian foreign minister’s meeting may be preparation for an upcoming visit by Netanyahu to Cairo to meet with Sissi.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry said it refused to comment on the trip, which comes as Netanyahu has been attempting to bolster Israel’s relations with regional countries once frosty toward the Jewish state, including furtive diplomacy with Sunni states that have no official ties.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, left, meets with Egyptian president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in Cairo on April, 20, 2016. (US State Department)
US Secretary of State John Kerry, left, meets with Egyptian president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in Cairo on April, 20, 2016. (US State Department)

On June 30, Shoukry made his first ever visit to Ramallah and met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. He reportedly gave a Abbas a special message from El-Sissi.

The message, according to a report by the official PA news agency Wafa, said that Sissi sent full “support to the president and the Palestinian people, and that Egypt will stand alongside their brothers the Palestinian people in order to achieve their legitimate rights and establish a state with East Jerusalem as its capital.”

In a lengthy televised speech to the Palestinians, Shoukry told the Palestinians that his country opposes any changes to the Arab Peace Initiative, and would use its power in the United Nations Security Council to force Israel to halt settlement building.

Earlier in June, Netanyahu said Israel would be interested in an altered draft of the initiative, a 2002 proposal that would see all Arab and Muslim states establish normal diplomatic relations with Israel after the successful conclusion of the peace process with the Palestinians.

Egypt's ambassador to Israel Hazem Khairat with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, February 29, 2016. (Prime Ministers Office)
Egypt’s ambassador to Israel Hazem Khairat with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, February 29, 2016. (Prime Ministers Office)

Netanyahu rejected the clauses in the Saudi-drafted initiative that require a full Israeli withdrawal from all territories captured in the 1967 Six Day War and that set out terms for a resolution of the issue of Palestinian refugees in return for normalized ties with the Arab world.

Shoukry, during his speech to the Palestinians, reiterated Egypt’s support for the French peace initiative — a new regional approach for a peace plan — and said his country is currently helping France prepare for a special conference on the Palestinian issue.

While Ramallah has fully backed the French initiative, Jerusalem has rejected it, arguing only direct negotiations can prove effective.

Not content with relying on the French initiative, Shoukry said his country has been in constant consultation with the US and that he was in talks with Secretary of State John Kerry to search for other ways to advance the peace process.

Sissi, in a rare live televised speech in April that included a rare direct appeal to Palestinians and Israelis, urged the two sides to draw hope from the “real and stable peace” between Israel and Egypt.

“There is an Arab initiative, there is currently a French initiative, and there are American efforts” to broker an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, he said.

The visit highlights what some say are unprecedently warm ties between official Jerusalem and Cairo, even as Egyptians generally remain cold to normalization with Israel.

“This is one of the best times we’ve ever had” in terms of cooperation between governments, Israeli ambassador to Egypt Haim Koren said recently. “There’s good cooperation between the armies, we have understandings about the Sinai Peninsula, and basically, we see (eye-to-eye) on development of the region.”

After decades of wars followed by years of an uneasy peace, Israel has emerged as a discreet ally to Sissi, along with powerhouse Saudi Arabia and smaller, wealthy Gulf Arab countries.

Sissi, who as army chief overthrew his elected but divisive successor, the Islamist Mohammed Morsi in 2013, was heavily supported by those Gulf states. He has helped Israel further isolate the Hamas militants ruling the Gaza Strip, the tiny slice of Palestinian territory wedged between Egypt and Israel. Hamas had close ties with the former Egyptian leader and is rooted in Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood.

Israel often praises Sissi for his tough stance on militants, and considers him a key ally in what it sees as a shared battled against Islamic extremists.

Netanyahu and Sissi often speak on the phone. Last May, Netanyahu welcomed what he described as Sissi’s “willingness” to help advance the peace process with the Palestinians, after Sissi said that Egypt’s relations with Israel could be warmer if it made peace with the Palestinians.

AP contributed to this report.

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