ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 147

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Sissi calls to congratulate Netanyahu, cautions against inflammatory measures

Phone call between Egyptian and Israeli leaders, in which they also affirm desire to expand ties, comes days after Jordan’s king issued ‘red line’ warning to Israel

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi (right) on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York on September 27, 2018. (Avi Ohayon / PMO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi (right) on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York on September 27, 2018. (Avi Ohayon / PMO)

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday to refrain from “any measures” that could inflame regional tensions, in a phone call congratulating him on his return to office.

According to a statement from the Egyptian leader’s office, Sissi stressed “the necessity of avoiding any measures that could lead to a tense situation and complicate the regional scene.”

Sissi also said his government would continue its efforts to “maintain calm” between Israel and the Palestinians, the statement added.

On Thursday, Israel’s 37th government was sworn in, capping a return to power for Netanyahu as the head of the country’s most right-wing government to date. It promised in its coalition guidelines to make settlement construction in the West Bank a top priority.

The Israeli readout of Sissi’s call focused instead on the two affirming their mutual desire to continue strengthening bilateral ties.

The two veteran leaders discussed “international and regional developments,” said the Prime Minister’s Office, often understood to be a reference to the war in Ukraine and the Iran threat.

Benjamin Netanyahu swears in as prime minister, regaining power a year and a half after he was ousted, in the Knesset on December 29, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

The leader of Israel’s other pre-Abraham Accords ally in the Arab world, Jordan’s King Abdullah, phoned Netanyahu in November after the elections. More recently, however, he warned the incoming Israeli government not to cross Jordan’s “red lines” with regard to Jerusalem’s holy sites, while expressing concern over the potential for a massive outbreak of Palestinian unrest.

In August 2022, Sissi spoke to Netanyahu’s predecessor Yair Lapid, who thanked him for Egypt’s role in negotiating a ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group, after three days of fighting in and around the Gaza Strip.

And in March of last year, then-prime minister Naftali Bennett met with Sissi and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan in the Sinai resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh.

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

The last official visit by Netanyahu to Egypt was in January 2011, when he met then-president Hosni Mubarak, though he reportedly paid a secret, unofficial visit in 2018. He also met with Sissi on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly the same year.

Alongside tight security cooperation, Israel and Egypt are moving to strengthen economic ties and hope to reach $700 million in annual bilateral trade in the next three years.

Under a new proposed plan, the two countries are set to jointly develop the Nitzana crossing, where commercial trade is handled, as a regional logistics center and a joint employment area; engage in R&D cooperation; develop joint projects in the area of green energy; and increase the number of direct flights. The plan will also see Israel increase imports of food, fresh fish, and construction materials from Egypt and exports of agriculture solutions and technologies.

A detail of the Zohr natural gas platform in Egypt (YouTube screenshot)

The two countries are targeting annual trade (excluding tourism and natural gas exports) at about $700 million by 2025, up from about $300 million in 2021, according to the Economy Ministry.

Israel and Egypt signed a peace agreement in 1979 but relations have been mostly frosty, thawing more recently in the past few years. The countries maintain close security ties and share security interests in the Gaza Strip as well as in Sinai and the eastern Mediterranean but most Egyptians reject ties with Israel. Cairo, like Jerusalem, sees Gaza’s Hamas rulers as a serious threat and has restricted crossings to and from the enclave.

In early 2020, Israel began exporting natural gas to Egypt, marking a historic moment for both countries.

AP contributed to this report.

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