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In first, Bennett meets Sissi, MBZ in Egypt amid concerns over Ukraine war

As European war continues and Iran nuke deal seemingly nears completion, PM holds unprecedented trilateral summit with regional partners in Sharm el-Sheikh

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan (R), Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi (C) and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett meet in Sharm el-Sheikh, March 22, 2022 (Spokesman of the Egyptian Presidency)
Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan (R), Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi (C) and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett meet in Sharm el-Sheikh, March 22, 2022 (Spokesman of the Egyptian Presidency)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met on Tuesday with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan in the Sinai resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh.

According to the Egyptian president’s office, the three leaders discussed the consequences of “global developments” — likely referring to the Russia-Ukraine War — on energy, market stability, and food security.

Egypt, the world’s largest wheat importer, receives about 80 percent of its supply from Russia and Ukraine. With wheat prices rising around the globe in the wake of the conflict, Cairo fixed the price of unsubsidized bread in the country on Monday.

Together, Ukraine and Russia produce around 25% of the world’s wheat. About half of Israel’s supply comes from Ukraine.

Human Rights Watch warned on Monday that the war in Ukraine “risks deepening the world’s food crisis, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa.”

The three leaders also discussed “the latest updates on a number of international and regional issues.” Among those issues, presumably, are the stalled talks on Iran’s nuclear program in Vienna.

The meeting represents the first-ever trilateral summit of Israeli, Egyptian and Emirati leaders.

Farmers harvest with their combines in a wheat field near the village Tbilisskaya, Russia, July 21, 2021. (AP Photo/Vitaly Timkiv, File)

Sissi’s spokesman’s office released a picture of the three leaders, with the Israeli flag clearly visible alongside the Egyptian and Emirati ones.

Bin Zayed, known colloquially as MBZ, is seen as the UAE’s powerful de facto ruler.

Bennett also met with Sissi on Monday, shortly after arriving in Sharm el-Sheikh, an Egyptian official told The Times of Israel.

The trip comes days after Israel announced the inauguration of a new flight route between Ben Gurion Airport and the south Sinai resort city. Flights are expected to start as early as next month, during the week of the Passover holiday. The news was widely covered by Israeli media, but was barely mentioned in the Egyptian press.

Bennett last met with Sissi in September, in what was the first such summit between Israeli and Egyptian leaders in more than a decade. The premier met with MBZ in December, when he made the first-ever visit by an Israeli prime minister to the Gulf country.

In this photo released by the official Facebook page of the Syrian Presidency, Syrian President Bashar Assad, left, speaks with Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, UAE Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Presidential Affairs, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, March 18, 2022. (Syrian Presidency Facebook page via AP)

Bin Zayed also landed in Sharm el-Sheikh Monday, days after hosting Syrian President Bashar Assad — a move harshly condemned by the Biden administration, which has thus far resisted joining efforts by a growing number of Mideast leaders to normalize the dictator.

The trilateral summit marks the latest development in the 2020 Abraham Accords, which saw Israel normalize relations with the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco in agreements brokered by the Trump administration. While the Biden administration so far has been unable to expand those accords, it has put effort into incorporating Egypt and Jordan — which have longstanding but complex ties with Israel — into them.

The normalization agreements have seen the solidification of a bloc of Middle Eastern countries interested in countering Iran’s influence in the region. Tuesday’s meeting comes against the backdrop of the suspended nuclear talks between Iran and world powers in Vienna that are widely believed to be nearing a resolution.

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

While Jerusalem vehemently opposes a joint US-Iran return to the agreement officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Cairo and Abu Dhabi are both seen as more amenable to the deal’s revival. Both are concerned about Iran’s support of proxies throughout the region, but have maintained that Iran is able to race toward a bomb absent any agreement.

Bennett was thought likely to use the summit to rally Egypt’s and the UAE’s support for his public campaign against reported US plans to delist Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terror group.

On Friday, he and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid issued a joint statement expressing concern over the potential move, saying, “Even now, the IRGC terrorist organization is trying to murder certain Israelis and Americans around the world. Unfortunately, there is still determination to sign the nuclear deal with Iran at almost any cost – including saying that the world’s largest terrorist organization is not a terrorist organization. This is too high a price.”

In response, a US official told The Times of Israel that the US was “prepared to make difficult decisions to return Iran’s nuclear program to JCPOA limits,” not denying that delisting the IRGC was potentially on the table.

Jacob Magid contributed to this report. 

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