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Israeli diplomats visiting Cairo amid claims of Sissi peace push

Egyptian officials deny reports that president is working behind the scenes to jumpstart Israeli-Palestinian negotiations

Tamar Pileggi is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Foreign Ministry Director Dore Gold attends a ceremony marking the reopening of Israel's embassy in Cairo, Egypt, on Wednesday, September 9, 2015 (Foreign Ministry)
Foreign Ministry Director Dore Gold attends a ceremony marking the reopening of Israel's embassy in Cairo, Egypt, on Wednesday, September 9, 2015 (Foreign Ministry)

A delegation of senior Israeli diplomats arrived in Cairo on Monday for meetings with Egyptian officials, amid reports that Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi is working behind the scenes to jumpstart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Led by Aviva Raz Shechter, the director-general of the Foreign Ministry’s Middle East Division, the Israeli delegation is expected to meet senior Egyptian Foreign Ministry officials during the two-day visit “as part of regular dialogue” between the two countries, a ministry spokesman told The Times of Israel.

According to the Palestinian news agency Ma’an, the delegation is in Cairo to lay the groundwork for a trilateral peace summit of Sissi, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

A report in Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth daily said Tuesday that Egyptian diplomats are in contact with their Israeli and Palestinian counterparts in a “significant” effort to arrange a Cairo meeting between the three leaders.

A Palestinian official told the paper that Cairo hopes to arrange a three-way summit “in the near future,” in which Sissi would play the role of intermediary, seeing as “no one is closing the door” on the Egyptian initiative.

Egyptian officials on Tuesday told Army Radio that the reports of a Cairo-led peace initiative were incorrect, but praised the increased cooperation between Israel and Egypt.

In a televised address last week, Sissi said he saw a “real opportunity” for an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement, even if some Israelis did not think peace was necessary now given the other upheaval in the region.

A deal, Sissi argued, would “give safety and stability to both sides. If this is achieved, we will enter a new phase that perhaps no one can imagine now.”

In a statement immediately after the speech, Netanyahu welcomed Sissi’s “willingness to invest every effort to advance a future of peace and security between us and the Palestinians,” and said Israel was ready to join Egypt and other Arab states in “advancing the peace process and stability in the region.”

Meanwhile, a similar French initiative, although welcomed by Palestinians, has been rejected out of hand by Israel. France’s plan calls for a June 3 international conference in Paris without Israeli or Palestinian representatives, followed by a fall conference with the two sides in attendance.

During a Monday meeting with French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, Netanyahu claimed the Paris conference was being used by the Palestinian leadership as a way to avoid direct talks with Israel.

Instead, Netanyahu said he would be willing to meet Abbas “in Paris or wherever,” and hold face-to-face negotiations without international mediation. “Every difficult issue will be on the table,” he said.

His proposal for direct negotiations was dismissed by Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, who on Tuesday claimed that Netanyahu was attempting to buy time, but said that “this time he will not escape the international community.”

Negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians have been at a standstill since a US-led initiative collapsed amid mutual recriminations in April 2014.

Raoul Wootliff and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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