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Netanyahu said happy to leave Israel-Egypt ties hanging on security

Citing sources familiar with a Knesset defense meeting, Haaretz says army, foreign and economy ministry officials all lament diminished relations in other areas, absence of embassy

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

An Egyptian protester holds an anti-Israel slogan near the Israeli embassy in Cairo, Egypt, Sunday, Aug. 21, 2011. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)
An Egyptian protester holds an anti-Israel slogan near the Israeli embassy in Cairo, Egypt, Sunday, Aug. 21, 2011. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

Officials from the foreign and economy ministries have raised concerns over the continued closure of the Israeli embassy in Cairo but were apparently brushed off by the Prime Minister’s Office, which is said to be satisfied with close security cooperation with Egypt.

The issue of the months-long shuttering of the embassy in Cairo was discussed at a Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting last month, Haaretz reported on Tuesday.

Israel pulled out Ambassador David Govrin and all of the embassy staff at the end of last year amid security concerns.

Representatives from the National Security Council, as well as from the IDF’s planning division, and economy and foreign ministries officials attended the closed-door forum.

Sources familiar with the proceedings told Haaretz that Foreign Ministry representatives told lawmakers that without an embassy in place, contacts between the two countries were reduced to talks with the Egyptian ambassador in Tel Aviv, making the upkeep of relations difficult. As a result, there has been a significant drop in relations, outside of security cooperation, impacting economic, civilian, and political ties.

Their views were backed by Economy Ministry officials and military representatives. All urged that the embassy be reopened to help restart wider cooperation between the neighboring counties.

Head of the Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee Avi Dichter leads a meeting at the Knesset, July 11, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Head of the Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee Avi Dichter leads a meeting at the Knesset, July 11, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

However, representatives from the NSC, which is under the Prime Minister’s Office, told the meeting that while civilian and political relations with Egypt do need to be rehabilitated, Netanyahu puts a higher premium on maintaining security cooperation.

“They said that the Egyptian army and security mechanisms manage most of Egypt’s foreign affairs anyway,” a source who was familiar with the discussion at the meeting said. “So reopening the embassy is important, but the relations with the Egyptian army are more important.”

Economy Ministry representatives noted that from the Egyptian point of view, not having the embassy there is easier as it is in line with local public opinion.

All of the sources spoke to Haaretz on condition of anonymity.

The meeting was called after Zionist Union MK Ksenia Svetlova sent a letter to committee chair MK Avi Dichter (Likud) and subcommittee for Foreign Policy and Public Relations chair MK Robert Ilatov (Yisrael Beytenu), raising concerns on the diminished relations with Egypt, which have shrunk to contacts between army officers from both sides and ties between Netanyahu’s special envoy Isaac Molho and Egyptian officials.

“Many interpret the absence of an Israeli ambassador in Egypt as de facto giving up on having an embassy in Cairo,” Svatlova wrote at the time. “In the absence of a resident ambassador, with the Foreign Ministry cut out, how can we reverse things?”

Zionist Union MK Ksenia Svetlova, March 31, 2015. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Zionist Union MK Ksenia Svetlova, March 31, 2015. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

According to Haaretz, the embassy has not been reopened in part due to “Egyptian foot-dragging on adequate security measures.”

Govrin, who speaks fluent Arabic, took up his post last July. He posted a video on the internet at the time in which he addressed the Egyptian people and spoke of his hopes for developing ties.

According to the report there have been talks in recent months on arranging for the embassy staff to return, but there has not been any progress.

On September 9, 2011, several thousand protesters forcibly entered the Israeli embassy in Giza, Cairo, after breaking down a perimeter wall to the compound. The protests began in response to the inadvertent killing of five Egyptian security guards by IDF soldiers during an attempt to catch terrorists who had ambushed and killed eight Israelis along the Israel-Egypt border.

The embassy closed, and was reopened in September 2015 before being shut again after staff were returned to Israel last year.

Israeli Ambassador to Egypt David Govrin at his home in Mevasseret Zion, near Jerusalem, on June 5, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Israeli Ambassador to Egypt David Govrin at his home in Mevasseret Zion, near Jerusalem, on June 5, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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