Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office issued a statement Monday regarding his two meetings with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry in Israel.
Shoukry was representing President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on an official mission.
Netanyahu said this was the first visit from an Egyptian foreign minister in an entire decade, underscoring how the meetings with Shoukry represent “change in Israeli-Egyptian relations.”
The Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs also issued a statement explaining that the talks spanned more than two hours. The meeting continued over a dinner Netanyahu hosted in his home, the statement added.
The Palestinian issue was at the center of the talks, the Egyptian statement continued. The meeting reportedly focused on Sisi’s call on May 17 to leaders in Palestine and Israel to find a fair resolution departing from the establishment of a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital.
“The bigger chunk [of the negotiations] took place in a bilateral context between Shoukry and Netanyahu alone,” the statement continued, adding that both ministers evaluated the results of the Paris Israel-Palestine peace conference on June 3.
The statement also touched on other bilateral relations, including “counterterrorism and the case of the Jerusalem Sultan monastery that is affiliated with the Egyptian Coptic church.”
Despite the statement’s focus on Egypt’s concern with the Palestinian issue, which also came out in the press conference that followed the meeting, some observations suggest that Palestine may not have been the primary motivation for the visit.
For one, this week the Israeli government approved US$13 million in financing for the occupied West Bank settlements of Kiryat Arba and Hebron. Netanyahu described the plan as a form of support for settlers who “stood heroically in the face of terrorism,” as he was quoted in the Associated Press.
And last week, the Israeli government made a similar decision to build hundreds of houses in settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
The move stirred international responses questioning Israel’s intentions and commitment to a peace deal, and Egypt followed suit. In a Foreign Ministry statement issued ahead of Shoukry’s Israel visit, the ministry condemned the Israeli government for expanding settlements in occupied Palestinian lands, saying that the move crystallizes the illegality and illegitimacy of settlements and hijacks efforts to resume the peace process.
“The timing of this Israeli escalation is not understandable or legitimate, as it is coming while regional and international efforts are being deployed with the objective of encouraging both the Israeli and Palestinian parties to build trust and create an enabling environment for the resumption of negotiations,” the Egyptian statement read.
But Israel didn’t heed Egypt’s remarks, and made its settlements move hours before the Egyptian foreign minister’s visit.
The location of the meetings is another indication that Shoukry’s visit to Israel was motivated by issues aside from Palestine. This month Egypt let go of a long-lasting protocol to refuse to conduct state visits in Jerusalem, which is one of the primary points of contention on the negotiation table. But in a diplomatic precedent, Netanyahu hosted Shoukry in none other than Jerusalem.
Nayel Shama, a political researcher and author of the book Egypt’s Foreign Policy from Mubarak to Morsi, says the Egyptian diplomatic position has always been decisive in differentiating between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem when dealing with Israel. Even though former President Hosni Mubarak was a strategic ally for Israel, even he was always careful to maintain certain red lines, Shama says.
It’s also important to note that the Foreign Ministry led the recent visit, not the General Intelligence Services, which have been handling diplomacy with Israel for years.
Israel’s Haaretz newspaper noted that Mubarak would send his spy chief Omar Suleiman on such visits. The Israeli paper concluded that the foreign minister’s visit to Israel is a manifestation of a “new level of relations closer to political normalization.”
“Everyone noticed this change and interpreted it as a new level of relations between the two countries,” says Israeli journalist Naom Sheizaf of +972 Magazine.
This new level of intimacy was visible in photographs from the meeting, which were only posted after the approval of both sides. Shama says the images show that Egypt feels it has nothing to hide, and indicate a move “from confidential warm relations to public ones.”
The Egypt-Israel rapprochement can be attributed to a number of reasons.
For Egypt, the peace process initiative could be a way to market Egyptian diplomacy as a powerful regional player that continues to hold important influence, Shama contends. He believes the meetings could translate into useful diplomatic capital for Egypt.
Egypt has also been engaging in intelligence and security cooperation with Israel as part of its counterterrorism efforts. According to Bloomberg, an anonymous Israeli official was quoted as saying that Israeli drones have been waging attacks on militants in Sinai in recent years with Egypt’s blessing.
A third key point for Egypt pertains to Netanyahu’s recent visit to Africa. Shama thinks that Egypt might be seeking Israeli mediation with Ethiopia on the Renaissance Dam front — a field of negotiations that has proven challenging for Sisi.
For Israel, a rapprochement with Egypt opens the door to wider normalization with other Arab countries, according to Shama. One of those countries may be Saudi Arabia, which has also shown a desire to grow closer to Israel, particularly through the redrawing of the maritime borders with Egypt in April. The deal, which granted sovereignty of two Red Sea islands to Saudi, was struck in coordination with Israel. An Israeli journalist for Maarif argues that the redrawn borders agreement represents the tip of the iceberg of confidential negotiations between the countries.
Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt have a shared position on several contentious regional matters. They all fear Iran’s opening to the world, the Islamic State’s expansion in Syria and Iraq, and the proliferation of terrorism.
But Netanyahu’s enthusiasm for the Egyptian call for peace in the region doesn’t necessarily mean a shared position on the Palestinian issue, especially given that Israel turned down a similar French proposal just weeks earlier.
“It is unclear whether the Egyptian visit is genuine, or whether it is an Egyptian-Israeli alignment to confront European and American interventions,” says Sheizaf.
According to Uri Avneiry, a former Knesset member, journalist and peace activist, the fact that Netanyahu refused the French initiative but immediately welcomed Sisi’s call for peace is evidence that Israel is under significant international pressure.
“The Israel that was universally admired disappeared long ago,” he wrote. “The BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] movement is immensely successful. It does not really hurt the Israeli economy. But it creates a mood, first on the campuses and then around them. Jewish institutions are sending SOS messages.”
“Slowly but surely the world is accepting the State of Palestine as a fact of life and as a condition for peace. So Netanyahu is looking around for a new trick. And what does he see? Egypt!” he continued.
Ghazy Fakhry, a Palestinian diplomat and member of the Palestinian National Council, believes that Israel is trying to buy time in order to make dramatic changes to the Palestinian reality, mainly through the expansion of settlements.
For Sheizaf, an Egyptian-sponsored peace process holds no hope because the current Israeli government won’t take any radical positions. He believes the Egyptian visit constitutes “a very big victory for Netanyahu.”
“Everyone claimed that Israel cannot have normal relations with Arab countries without resolving the Palestinian issue,” he explains. “But Netanyahu surprised everyone, and did it without paying anything back.”