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Analysis

Eyeing Bennett’s DC trip, Egypt upgrades mediator in push for Gaza breakthrough

A more senior official joins the Cairo team hosting Israel-Hamas talks, as diplomatic efforts intensify and Egypt seeks to win favor in Washington

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, right, meets with Palestinian Fatah official Azzam Al-Ahmad at the foreign ministry in Cairo, May 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, right, meets with Palestinian Fatah official Azzam Al-Ahmad at the foreign ministry in Cairo, May 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)

A more senior official has been added to the Egyptian team that has been mediating talks between Israel and Hamas since the end of May’s 11-day conflict between the Jewish state and Gaza terror groups, with Cairo stepping up its diplomatic push in order to curry favor in Washington, The Times of Israel has learned.

Veteran mediator Ahmad Abd al-Khalek has been joined by one of his superiors, Amr Nazmi, which indicates a more intensive effort by Cairo for a long-term truce in the volatile enclave.

The two mediators are both Egyptian intelligence officials, but Nazmi is ranked above al-Khalek. Al-Khalek handled the mediated talks for several years, but as long as Israel was mired in its two-year political crisis of interim governments and four rounds of elections, these diplomatic efforts were restrained.

The reason for Nazmi’s inclusion, The Times of Israel has learned, is the desire of the Egyptians to be ready for Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s upcoming trip to Washington. The diplomats and the Egyptian Foreign Service were closely watching US President Joe Biden’s meeting with President Reuven Rivlin earlier this week and made note of Biden’s invitation to Bennett to visit DC “as soon as possible.”

Ahead of Bennett’s first trip to the United States as Israel’s leader, the Egyptians want to show some gains in the talks in order to win points with the new Biden administration. Such an achievement could be setting a fixed number of Palestinian prisoners to be released by Israel in exchange for the civilians and bodies of IDF soldiers held by Hamas, a figure that would be much lower than what the Gaza rulers demand. They will seek additional breakthroughs, while underlining to the Biden administration that Egypt is highly engaged and committed to reaching a solution.

Relations in recent years between Washington and Cairo have passed through Jerusalem. Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu used to tell reporters that the Egyptians were trying to position themselves more favorably in DC through the assistance of their Israeli counterparts. The Egyptians were well aware of the warm relationship between former US president Donald Trump and Netanyahu and saw the Israeli leader’s close contacts as a portal to the Oval Office.

President Reuven Rivlin (left) and US President Joe Biden in the White House on June 29, 2021. (Haim Zach/GPO)

Now, the situation seems to be similar. The US has a new president who is warmly embracing the new Israeli leadership. Biden has distanced himself from Netanyahu and, when the political crisis in Israel worsened with the fourth elections in March, chose to summon Rivlin for a farewell trip.

While the planning for the Israeli president’s Washington trip was still underway, a new Israeli government was sworn in and Biden told Rivlin that he wanted Bennett as his guest as soon as possible. Egypt carefully noted this development.

Major players in the Middle East — including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey — know the urgent issues for the US administration include its possible reentry into the Iran nuclear deal and the tight schedule for the talks on rejoining the pact, with hardliner Ebrahim Raisi set to take over as Iran’s president on August 3. Saudi Arabia’s standing in DC is shaky and Turkey’s situation is complicated, but the Egyptians do not want to go back to the Obama era and are seeking a good working relationship with Biden. They want to be liked.

The Egyptian leadership sees the doors in DC swinging wide open for the new and young prime minister of Israel, along with his diverse coalition members, which include left-wing parties as well as the Islamist Ra’am.

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)

While Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi has not spoken by telephone with Netanyahu for over a year (not even during the seven months of the short-lived 35th government led by Netanyahu and Benny Gantz) the conversation between Bennett and Sissi earlier this week was extremely positive. Foreign ministers Yair Lapid and Sameh Shoukry also had their first phone call, and the Egyptians said that all conversations were positive and productive.

That is why Amr Nazmi has joined the Egyptian negotiation team to speed up the pace.

From the Israeli side, National Security Council official Nimrod Gez and the chief negotiator for the release of Israelis held by Hamas, Yaron Blum, were in Cairo recently, joined by other members of the security team.

An important issue for Israel is its civilians being held in Gaza — Hisham al-Sayed and Avera Mengistu — as well as the bodies of two Israeli soldiers, Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, who were killed in the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas. Israel is insisting that no agreement be advanced without their return to Israel.

Clockwise from top left: Oron Shaul, Avera Mengistu, Hadar Goldin and Hisham al-Sayed. (Flash 90/Courtesy)

The Egyptians, meanwhile, are seeking to clinch a breakthrough before Bennett’s Washington visit.

During the recent round of mediation talks in Cairo, the Egyptians were focused on early information with respect to the exact traveling schedule of the Israeli leader. It is their aim that Bennett enter the Oval Office and present a positive approach to the Egyptian-Israeli cooperation, perhaps even praise the work of the Egyptians.

Their ambition is to reach some sort of framework agreement by then and set the number of Palestinian prisoners to be released as part of a potential prisoners swap deal, while whittling down Hamas’ unrealistic numbers. In addition, the Egyptians together with the Israelis will have to find a way to show the Americans that such a move won’t further undermine the credibility of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and embolden Hamas politically.

From the Egyptians’ point of view, the road to Washington passes through Jerusalem — no matter who the Israeli prime minister or American president is.

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