CAIRO – The Egyptian and Israeli leaders met on Monday as part of an Israeli prime minister’s first official trip to Egypt in more than a decade, with rising tensions in the Gaza Strip at the top of their agenda. agenda.
Gaza is sandwiched between Israel and Egypt, and the two countries have imposed a border blockade of the territory to varying degrees since 2007, when the Islamic militant group Hamas took control.
The meeting between Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett signaled a warming in a relationship that had been security-oriented but somewhat cold under Bennett’s predecessor, the die-hard Israeli Benjamin Netanyahu.
El-Sisi and Bennett met at the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh, according to an official statement from the Egyptian presidency. Egyptian state television showed the two leaders seated side by side in front of the two national flags, in the presence of the chief of staff of the IDF, the Egyptian foreign minister and the head of its intelligence services. .
It was the first official visit by an Israeli prime minister since 2010, when Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak held a summit with Netanyahu, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Less than a year later, Egypt was rocked by a popular uprising that overthrew Mubarak.
El-Sisi told state television that he and Bennett discussed maintaining the ceasefire in the Gaza Strip, in addition to the Ethiopian dam on one of the tributaries of the Nile, which Egypt considers a threat to its water supply.
The Israeli prime minister, in a statement after the meeting, said he thanked al-Sisi for his country’s role in stabilizing Gaza and helping the missing and captive Israelis in the conflict between Israel. and Hamas.
For nearly a decade, Israeli officials held secret meetings with their Arab counterparts, some of which were not announced until after the fact. Egypt in 1979 was the first Arab country to strike a peace deal with Israel, but only after the two countries waged four wars between 1948 and 1973.
The meeting is a boost for Bennett, who took office in June and is still trying to establish his foreign policy benchmarks. His predecessor, Netanyahu, introduced himself as a global statesman but was never able to hold a public meeting with the Egyptian president.
Egypt has often mediated between Hamas and Israel in their four wars, the most recent in May, when it negotiated a ceasefire that largely ended the fighting. Egypt has tried to make it a long-term truce, but those efforts seem to have run into problems in recent weeks. Hamas demanded the lifting of the blockade, which devastated Gaza’s economy. Israel wants Hamas to free two captive Israeli civilians and return the remains of two soldiers killed in a 2014 war.
In recent weeks, a sign of rising tensions, Hamas has staged a number of violent protests along the Israeli border and launched dozens of incendiary balloons across the border, igniting a series of wildfires in the area. southern Israel.
Earlier this month, al-Sisi also had talks with King Abdullah II of Jordan and Abbas in Cairo, where they underscored their support for the elusive two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The three leaders said the Palestinians have the right to an independent state with East Jerusalem as its capital, a plan Israel fiercely opposes.
But Israel has praised al-Sisi’s government for its help over the years, and in turn granted Egyptian forces greater freedom near the border to fight Islamist insurgents on the Sinai Peninsula.
The Egyptian government generally follows a cautious line with its own citizens, who strongly oppose Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians. While Egyptian and Israeli officials collaborate quietly on security matters, the Egyptian government rarely criticizes Israel in public. However, the government is giving free rein to prominent figures aligned with the government to denounce Israel or portray it as the enemy in the media.
More recently, the escape of six Palestinian detainees from an Israeli maximum security prison has garnered praise from many Egyptians. Over the weekend, Israel caught four of the fugitives. In response, Palestinian militants in Gaza launched several rockets at Israel, causing Israeli airstrikes in retaliation.
Saeed Okasha, a political analyst at the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said the relationship between al-Sisi and Israel’s new leader has yet to be tested.
“There is no grudge between Egypt and Bennett. Egypt is ready to listen to a new Israeli voice, especially in light of regional tensions, ”he said.
Associated Press editors Ilan Ben Zion and Joe Federman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected to show that this is the first official visit by an Israeli prime minister to Egypt in over a decade, rather than the first public meeting between Egyptian and Israeli leaders in over a decade. a decade.