CAIRO: Israel’s Naftali Bennett met Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi on Monday, on the first visit to the North African country by a prime minister of the Jewish state in over a decade.
El-Sisi was hosting Bennett in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh to discuss “efforts to revive the peace process” between the Israelis and Palestinians, presidential spokesman Bassam Radi.
Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country, in 1979 became the first Arab state to sign a peace treaty with Israel, after decades of enmity.
In May, it played a key role in brokering a cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas that rules the Gaza Strip, after 11 days of deadly fighting.
Egypt regularly receives leaders of Hamas as well as of its political rival the Palestinian Authority led by Mahmud Abbas, while maintaining strong diplomatic, security and economic ties with Israel.
Israel’s Foreign Minister Yair Lapid on Sunday proposed improving living conditions in Gaza and building new infrastructure in exchange for calm from Hamas, aiming to solve the “never-ending rounds of violence.”
But “it won’t happen without the support and involvement of our Egyptian partners and without their ability to talk to everyone involved,” he said.
Bennett’s visit comes about 10 days after Abbas was in Cairo for talks with El-Sisi.
Monday’s talks mark “an important step in light of the growing security and economic relations between the two countries, and their mutual concern over the situation in Gaza,” Cairo-based analyst Nael Shama told AFP.
It also fits with “Egypt’s plans to revive the political talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority,” he added.
The last meeting between an Egyptian president and an Israeli premier dates back to January 2011 when Hosni Mubarak received Benjamin Netanyahu, weeks before Mubarak was toppled in a popular revolution.
In the political turbulence that followed, relations between the two countries deteriorated as protests were staged outside the Israeli embassy in Cairo in 2011.
The one-year reign of Egypt’s Islamist president Muhammad Mursi from 2012 also proved to be icy, with Israel suspicious of his Muslim Brotherhood’s close ties to Hamas.
El-Sisi has again positioned Egypt as a regional bulwark of stability, echoing the frequent peace summits overseen by Mubarak before his ouster.
Israel and Egypt are two of Washington’s main allies in the Middle East and are the largest recipients of US military aid, and they have worked together on security issues.
El-Sisi, in a 2019 interview on CBS, acknowledged Egypt’s army was working closely with Israel in combating “terrorists” in the restive North Sinai.
He underscored Cairo’s “wide range of cooperation with the Israelis.”
The relationship developed after Egypt regained sovereignty over the Sinai Peninsula, which Israel occupied in the 1967 Six-Day War.
Egyptian forces have for years fought an insurgency in the Sinai, led mainly by a local affiliate of the Daesh group.
The two neighbors have also deepened their ties in the field of energy. Since last year, Egypt has received natural gas from Israel to liquefy it and re-export it to Europe.
Bennett’s visit follows on from a “long working relationship” that El-Sisi maintained with Netanyahu, said Shama, author of a book on Egypt’s foreign policy.
The right-wing religious nationalist Bennett took office in June, ending Netanyahu’s 12 straight years as Israel’s premier.
“Cairo intends once again to signal to the Biden administration its indispensable role in stabilising the Palestinian-Israeli conflict,” Shama said.
Popular sentiment on the ground in Egypt has also toned down from being resolutely hostile toward Israel, amid a more severe crackdown on dissent under El-Sisi.
“El-Sisi has succeeded in taming the opposition and absorbing other political movements,” said Cairo University political science professor Mustapha Kamel Al-Sayyid.
Israel last year signed normalization deals with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan under the aegis of Donald Trump’s administration.