Egyptian leader Sissi is showing his mettle by posing with Netanyahu
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Analysis

Egyptian leader Sissi is showing his mettle by posing with Netanyahu

But as the Cairo leadership builds ties with Israel and fosters Palestinian unity, it is also sidelining Abbas

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, meets with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, right, in New York on September 19, 2017. (Avi Ohayun)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, meets with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, right, in New York on September 19, 2017. (Avi Ohayun)

In meeting publicly with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has once again proved that he is the bravest Arab leader in the region.

Sissi dared to do what other Arab heads will only do under the radar — sit down with Israeli leaders, among them Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman.

Netanyahu and Sissi’s meeting on Monday night on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York provides a clear indication that at the moment Sissi feels confident enough of his position in Egypt and the Arab world to publicly reveal that such an event took place.

A statement from Sissi’s office said the talks focused on “resuming negotiations between the Israeli and Palestinian sides to reach a comprehensive solution.”

The two leaders discussed “ways to resume the peace process and establish a Palestinian state,” the statement said.

But it’s highly likely that the 90-minute meeting dealt with a lot more than the long-stalled peace process. The two doubtless talked about diplomatic relations between their countries, and of course the deep security coordination between Israel and Egypt on the restive Sinai Peninsula.

It is also highly probable that one of the central subjects that came up was the Egyptian effort in recent weeks to bring about an internal Palestinian reconciliation between rivals Fatah and Hamas in order to return Palestinian Authority rule to the Gaza Strip in one form or the other.

Sissi’s people in the Egyptian intelligence service are having intense discussions with Fatah and Hamas leaders in order restore to power — at least on a bureaucratic level — Rami Hamdallah’s Palestinian Authority government in Gaza, alongside removing the sanctions that the PA put on Hamas to pressure the Islamists into giving up their rule over the coastal enclave they seized in 2007.

Trucks loaded with aid enter the Gaza Strip from Israel through the Kerem Shalom crossing on October 12, 2014, in Rafah in southern Gaza. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

According to various reports, measures under discussion include the induction of Hamas officials into the Fatah-dominated PA’s mechanism of governance, and the deployment of PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s presidential guard at the border crossings with Israel and Egypt, including the Erez and Kerem Shalom crossings.

Sissi is aware of the serious concerns Israel has with the implications of such a development, and it is probable that in his conversation with Netanyahu he sought to assuage them.

Netanyahu, for his part, can definitely mark as an achievement the fact that the meeting was publicized, as it gives a stamp of approval to his claims that Israel’s ties with the Arab world have never been so good.

The senior Israeli official closest to Netanyahu who was at the meeting was the head of Israel’s National Security Council, Meir Ben-Shabbat. In his previous position as head of the Shin Bet general security service’s southern region activities, Ben-Shabbat knew better than anyone how Hamas smuggles material through both the Egyptian and Israeli border crossings to enhance its military infrastructure in Gaza. The Shin Bet has uncovered dozens of such cases.

A Defense Ministry employee discovers bulletproof plating in a shipment of car parts on its way to the Gaza Strip through the Kerem Shalom Crossing on December 29, 2015. (Defense Ministry Crossing Authority)

On more than one occasion, the Shin Bet’s southern department provided concrete evidence of cooperation between Hamas and the Sinai branch of the Islamic State that was sometimes going on right under the noses of Egyptian intelligence services.

These days, cooperation between Hamas and IS members in Sinai is on the decline, and that is as a result of moves that have been made between Cairo and the Gaza-based organization.

Still, it can be assumed that the cooperation is ongoing to some extent, and happening occasionally even now. Egypt is likely assuring Israel that even if the Rafah crossing with Gaza opens more frequently and predictably, Cairo will take into account Israeli security interests and act to prevent smuggling into Gaza — although it is far from clear that such action will actually be forthcoming.

The meeting between the Israeli and Egyptian leaders creates something of a paradox. One the one hand, Sissi’s regime has recently grown very close to Hamas, and the terror organization’s leadership have become welcome guests in Cairo. On the other hand, the conversation between Sissi and Netanyahu might pave the way to a more stable security situation between Israel and Hamas.

But what cannot be ignored is that Abbas, who is also in New York, was not at the meeting. And his standing will only become further eroded if Israel, Hamas, and Egypt come to any kind of serious arrangement concerning the Gaza Strip.

Palestinians coming from Egypt cross into the Gaza Strip through the Rafah border crossing, on May 26, 2015. (AFP/SAID KHATIB)
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