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Sissi’s peace push still on the table, Egyptian MPs tell Israeli MK

Zionist Union’s Ksenia Svetlova ‘cautiously optimistic’ for regional peace initiative after ‘positive’ talks on water issues with MPs from Arab states

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

MK Ksenia Svetlova of the Zionist Union party as a new member of the Israeli Knesset, March 29, 2015. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
MK Ksenia Svetlova of the Zionist Union party as a new member of the Israeli Knesset, March 29, 2015. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Egyptian parliamentarians conveyed to their Israeli counterparts that President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’s peace proposal was still on the table, according to Zionist Union MK Ksenia Svetlova, who met with Arab lawmakers in Geneva last week on the Middle East water crisis.

In what Svetlova described as “very positive” talks, she and her fellow Zionist Union member Erel Margalit attended a three-day roundtable event organized by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) with a Palestinian delegation, as well as Arab legislators from Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.

“We also talked about water, but not only about water. The message the Egyptians wanted to convey, in my impression, is that the [peace] initiative of Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi is still on the table,” Svetlova told The Times of Israel on Wednesday.

In a rare direct appeal to Israelis, Sissi last month called for a renewal of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. The Egyptian president, together with US Secretary of State John Kerry and former Quartet envoy Tony Blair, was reportedly among foreign leaders who pushed for Zionist Union chair Isaac Herzog to join Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. Herzog-Netanyahu negotiations collapsed, however, when Netanyahu turned to Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party to expand his coalition.

On Friday, following a one-day peace summit in Paris — to which Israel and the Palestinians were not invited — Sissi welcomed recent initiatives by the international community aimed at advancing a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi listens to US Secretary of State John Kerry during a meeting at the presidential palace in Cairo on May 18, 2016. (Amr Nabil/Pool/AFP)
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi listens to US Secretary of State John Kerry during a meeting at the presidential palace in Cairo on May 18, 2016. (Amr Nabil/Pool/AFP)

“Much is being invested in international efforts, and the French initiative is on the agenda,” he said.

Netanyahu has rejected the French plan, but partially endorsed the Arab Peace Initiative earlier this month and has said he is open to regional talks with Arab mediation. Both Netanyahu and Herzog have recently stressed on numerous occasions that there is a “rare opportunity” to revive peace talks and advance a regional accord, without elaborating.

Svetlova on Wednesday expressed “cautious optimism” that there were “small fluctuations” in the region’s attitude toward the Jewish state which should be seized as an opportunity to restart talks, particularly from Egypt. She maintained that despite rampant anti-Israeli sentiment among the Egyptian public — which she said has diminished in the Egyptian press since 2011 — “there is more openness now, certainly in the halls of politics. And if Israel responds to this, there is a [political] horizon that wasn’t there before. This is the message they wanted to convey.”

Ahead of the Geneva meeting, Svetlova, a former journalist who covered the Arab world, said she was ready to be “on the defensive” and “was prepared for all scenarios.”

“To my surprise and joy, the atmosphere was very positive. Especially from the Egyptian parliament members, most of whom are new parliament members,” she said. “We also received an invitation to visit Egypt. I don’t know if it will happen or when it will happen. It was an oral invitation. I personally hope that it happens.”

The Egyptians “were easy to talk to” and “all were unified in the notion that we need to get out of the regional deadlock,” she added.

The Zionist Union MK urged the Israeli government to pursue peace talks and capitalize on the situation, while opining that Netanyahu missed similar windows of opportunity in the past.

File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Zionist Union leader MK Isaac Herzog in the Knesset, January 20, 2014. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Zionist Union leader MK Isaac Herzog in the Knesset, January 20, 2014. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

“With all the good and positive statements coming out of Cairo and the new atmosphere that was created, we should utilize it quickly, otherwise it will be too late,” she said.

“I am very cautious in my optimism. Because as a journalist, I saw a lot of good beginnings. But if there is no political continuation, it could easily fall apart,” she continued. “I think the prime minister has missed a lot of opportunities like this,” including in 2009, “and he didn’t take advantage of it then; the question is whether he will take advantage of it now.”

While Herzog has defended his coalition talks with Netanyahu on the basis of kick-starting peace talks, Svetlova indicated Wednesday that the negotiations were over.

“I believe my party leader when he says it’s off the table, end of story,” she said. “I don’t believe it,” Svetlova said of Netanyahu’s offers. “The statements until now, from my perspective, are empty words.”

Last week’s Geneva summit, dedicated to water issues, was the first of several meetings on Middle East cooperation lined up over the next several months. The second will focus on agriculture and food, and the third on technology and renewable energy.

The IPU made “extraordinary efforts to bring” the parliamentarians together, Svetlova said, while also crediting Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein for pushing it forward. “It’s not easy. It was just before the month of Ramadan, [there are] political constraints, and in general it’s not easy” to arrange for Arab lawmakers to meet with Israeli ones, she said.

Svetlova said she would continue talks with the Palestinian representatives, some of whom are located in East Jerusalem, to try to resolve the “very difficult [water] crisis in the PA,” and how to “divorce the water from the politics.”

The next meeting is tentatively scheduled for two months from now, and Svetlova was hoping it will be held in Egypt.

“My dream is to renew the relations with Egypt on agriculture. We had excellent ties with Egypt in this field in the 1980s… From what I hear, there is a lot of room for Israeli-Egyptian cooperation. Now, when the atmosphere is a little more positive, I think we can restore the situation and renew the cooperation which was so successful between the two countries,” she said.

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