Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry made a rare visit to Jerusalem on Sunday and asserted, standing alongside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that Cairo remained a “steadfast and unwavering” supporter of the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Sameh Shoukry’s was the first such visit by an Egyptian foreign minister since 2007. Recently, Israel has emerged as a discreet ally of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who has positioned himself as a central player in jump-starting the stalemated peace process.
The visit came amid talk of renewing an Arab peace initiative and with Israel’s military having recently saluted “unprecedented” intelligence cooperation with Egypt to combat the Islamic State group.
Speaking to journalists alongside Netanyahu before their meeting, Shoukry said it was a “crucial and challenging juncture for the Middle East.” He added that Cairo was dedicated to “establishing a just and comprehensive peace between the Israeli and Palestinian people, bringing this long conflict to an end.
“The goal we aim to achieve through negotiations between the two parties is one that is based on justice, legitimate rights and mutual willingness to coexist peacefully in two neighboring independent states in peace and security,” he said.
“Egypt remains ready to assist in achieving this goal,” he said, adding that “such a momentous achievement will have a far-reaching, dramatic and positive impact on the overall conditions in the Middle East. The current state of affairs is, unfortunately, neither stable nor sustainable.”
Shoukry, who visited Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank last month, on Sunday urged leaders from both sides to resume negotiations.
Netanyahu, for his part, welcomed Shoukry to Israel, saying the 1979 peace deal between Jerusalem and Cairo was “the cornerstone of regional stability.” He also hailed Sissi’s “recent offer of Egyptian leadership and efforts to advance peace with the Palestinians and a broader peace in our region,” and urged the Palestinians “to follow the courageous example of Egypt and Jordan and join us for direct negotiations.”
Sissi had said in May that there was a “real opportunity” for an Israeli-Palestinian deal that could lead to warmer ties between his country and Israel.
The meeting between Netanyahu and Shoukry after the press conference was “held in a very good atmosphere,” an Israeli diplomatic official told The Times of Israel.
The two men discussed various issues, chief among them the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and regional developments, the official added. Netanyahu brought up the missing Israelis held in Gaza and asked for Cairo’s help in returning them to Israel, to which Shoukry responded affirmatively, the official said.
Netanyahu and Shoukry were set to meet again Sunday night for dinner at the prime minister’s residence.
Before the meeting, Egypt’s Foreign Ministry said Shoukry and Netanyahu would discuss “laying the foundation and specifics of confidence-building between Palestinians and Israelis to create a supportive environment to resume direct negotiations between them with the aim of reaching a comprehensive and just solution.”
Israel Radio said the trip was also partly intended to prepare the groundwork for a possible visit by Netanyahu to Cairo, but officials have yet to comment on that report.
In 1979, Egypt was the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with neighboring Israel after years of conflict, and it remains an influential player in the region.
The two countries’ ties have, however, been formally cold over Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians, and relations further soured after the June 2012 election of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi as Egyptian president.
After president Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in the 2011 revolution, protesters stormed Israel’s embassy in September that year amid clashes with police. Morsi was ousted in July 2013 by then army chief Sissi, who was elected president in 2014.
In June, representatives from 28 Arab and Western countries, the Arab League, European Union and the United Nations met in Paris to discuss ways to help advance peace efforts. Israel strongly opposes that initiative, which is being promoted by France.
Netanyahu has at the same time spoken of reviving a long-dormant Arab peace initiative dating to 2002. The proposal essentially calls for Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and resolve the issue of refugees with the Palestinians, leading to the creation of a Palestinian state, in exchange for normalized relations with all Arab and Muslim countries.
Egypt and Israel have cooperated in other areas, particularly in regard to jihadists in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, who pledged allegiance in November 2014 to the Islamic State group.
In April, the Israeli military’s deputy chief of staff spoke of an “unprecedented level of cooperation” with Egypt, mainly regarding intelligence.
On Sunday, Shoukry said the situation in the Middle East was “becoming ever more volatile and dangerous, particularly as the phenomenon of terrorism continues to grow and proliferate, representing an existential threat to the peoples of the region and the world at large.”
AFP contributed to this report.