Rare visit to Israel by Egypt’s oil minister sends signals to Biden, Erdogan

The trip, following similar delegations of Greek and Cypriot leaders, is intended to show that the regional allies are united and coordinated, when dealing with friends and foes

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi meets Egyptian Petroleum Minister Tarek El-Molla meet in Jerusalem, February 21, 2021 (photo credit: MFA)
Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi meets Egyptian Petroleum Minister Tarek El-Molla meet in Jerusalem, February 21, 2021 (photo credit: MFA)

Although the visit of Egypt’s Petroleum and Mineral Resources Minister to Israel on Sunday had the trappings of a routine discussion about energy cooperation by regional partners, it also sent a message to rivals and to the United States.

Tarek el-Molla’s trip was noteworthy for the mere fact that he was the first Egyptian minister to visit Israel since foreign minister Sameh Shoukry met with Netanyahu in 2016.

And El-Molla is no minor player. “El-Molla is very close to [Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah] el-Sisi,” pointed out Gabriel Mitchell of the Mitvim Institute, an Israel-based think tank. “He is arguably one of the most visible Egyptian ministers outside the presidency.”

There is certainly no shortage of weighty energy issues for El-Molla to discuss with Israel. Israel and Egypt agreed Sunday to link up Israel’s Leviathan natural gas field with Egyptian liquid natural gas facilities through an underwater pipeline, from which it can be exported to European markets.

What’s more, a UAE-Israel plan to pump oil from Eilat on the Red Sea to Ashkelon on the Mediterranean concerns Egypt, but Cairo has largely refrained from publicly criticizing the project. A deal to provide Israeli natural gas to Gaza is nearing approval, and anything that happens in the coastal enclave could have a direct impact on Egyptian security.

Analysts say that one of the key purposes of the meetings — beyond the energy discussions —  was to send a message to Turkey, and its president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a news conference, in Ankara, Turkey, October 26, 2020. (Turkish Presidency via AP, Pool)

For the better part of a decade, Turkey has been engaged in a bitter rivalry with Egypt that began when Erdogan backed the Muslim Brotherhood after the group was ousted from power in Cairo

In the Mediterranean, Egypt has aligned itself with Greece and Cyprus, which accuse Turkey of illegally drilling for natural gas in their exclusive economic zones. Together with Israel, the countries formed the EastMed Gas Forum, headquartered in Cairo, and have conducted joint military exercises.

“A meeting between Israel and Egypt, even if it isn’t the primary purpose of the visit, does send a message to Turkey, especially in the context of the other meetings that are taking place this month,” said Mitchell.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis visited Israel on February 8,  and Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades met with Netanyahu on February 14.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hosts Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis in Jerusalem on February 8, 2021 (Haim Zach / GPO)

“There s a clear message of unity, that these partners are working together, that they have their diplomatic ducks in a row, they have their energy ducks in a row.”

The East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), which comprises Israel, Egypt, Cyprus, Greece, and the Palestinian Authority, was formally launched in September. The forum intends to cooperate on the establishment of a natural gas pipeline connecting Israel, Greece and Cyprus to Italy and on to Europe. The eventual aim is to supply the continent with ten percent of its gas.

Israel joined the EMGF last September in a development formally establishing the brainchild of Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz and el-Molla as a regional intergovernmental organization, based in Cairo.

The visit was also meant to send a message to the Biden Administration.

Egypt anticipates increased pressure from the US government over its human rights record.

“We won’t tolerate assaults or threats by foreign governments against American citizens or their family members,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said last week after Sisi’s government arrested the family of a political activist who is also a US citizen.

As a presidential candidate, Biden tweeted “No more blank checks for Trump’s ‘favorite dictator.'”


“I have no doubt that the Egyptians have worries about the Biden Administration,” said Eran Lerman, vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and past deputy director of Israel’s National Security Council.

“The Egyptians understand well how important expressions of normalization like this are for Israel,” said Moshe Albo, a modern Middle East historian and researcher at the Dado Center for Interdisciplinary Military Studies. “Therefore the hidden message is that Egypt is working with Israel, and expects Israel to help it with the US; and a message for the US, who will see Egypt cooperating with Israel.”

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis (C), his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Cypriot President Nikos Anastasiadis pose in Athens on January 2, 2020, ahead of the signing of an agreement for the EastMed pipeline project designed to ship gas from the eastern Mediterranean to Europe. (ARIS MESSINIS / AFP)

“All the eastern Mediterranean is arranging itself so that Biden hears a unified position from us,” argued Lerman.

Lerman sees the visits by the Greek and Cypriot leaders as part of the regional coordination process directed partially at Biden. “They weren’t here just to talk about tourism,” he said.

The visit, during which el-Molla visited Palestinian officials in Ramallah, also allowed Egypt to present itself as an invaluable mediator between Israel and the Palestinians, as it has sought to do since Biden’s electoral victory. In December, Sisi said that Cairo was working to advance the two-state solution. A week before Biden took office, Egypt hosted the Jordanian, French, and  German foreign ministers to discuss reviving Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

The more Egypt can present itself as a source of stability and cooperation in the region, the logic goes, the less pressure it will face from the US over its human rights record.

A crane vessel makes its way to Israel to help set up the Leviathan natural gas platform. (Noble Energy)

In their comments, Israeli leaders sought to emphasize Egypt’s positive influence in the Middle East. “Egypt plays a vital role in the region promoting security, stability, and peace,” said Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi.

He was also sure to play up the appearance of increasing normalization with Egypt. “Egypt was the first country to sign a peace agreement with Israel,” said Ashkenazi, “and we hope that the paradigm shift of the Abraham Accords and all the normalization, we will be able together to expand the peace circle around the region.”

Mitchell believes that relations between Israel and Egypt are noticeably warmer than they have been in the past. “Cooperation has never been so diverse, and never been so meaningful in the entire history of bilateral relations,” he argued.

“There is a trend of normalization,” Lerman agreed. “I’ll remind you that the Egyptians gave their support for the Abraham Accords.”

Albo is unconvinced that the Egyptians are trying to show that they intend to pursue noticeably warmer relations with Israel. “Egypt is presenting the visit internally as one that advances Egypt’s interests, one of its commitments as part of Egypt’s vision for the EastMed, in which el-Molla is meeting both the Palestinian and Israeli energy ministers.”

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