JERUSALEM, Israel – Israel’s prime minister met publicly with Egypt’s president for the first time in decades on Monday, signaling deepening ties between the two countries.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett described his meeting with President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi as “very important and very good,” and said the pair “created a foundation for deep ties in the future.”
They met in the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh and President el-Sissi warmly welcomed the Israeli prime minister.
“We discussed a series of issues in the diplomatic, security and economic spheres, as well as ways to deepen ties and strengthen the interests of our countries,” Bennett said in a statement released by his office.
“Israel is increasingly opening up to the countries of the region, and the basis of this longstanding recognition is the peace between Israel and Egypt,” he added “Therefore, on both sides we must invest in strengthening this link, and we have done so today."
Egypt was the first Arab country to make peace with Israel in 1979 and serves as a key mediator between Israel and Hamas. The volatile Gaza Strip is sandwiched between the two countries and Egpyt is often tasked with brokering a ceasefire between the two sides during war.
Bennett thanked el-Sissi for helping bring stability to the region.
The two leaders discussed bilateral relations, reviving the Israel-Palestinian peace process and other regional and international developments, according to a statement issued by el-Sissi’s office.
"We also talked about the Gaza Strip and the importance of maintaining peace and the ceasefire, as well as the importance of economic support for the Strip and improving people's conditions, whether in the West Bank or Gaza Strip,” the president told Egyptian media.
Egypt is currently trying to establish a long-term ceasefire between Israel and Hamas following their most recent round of fighting in May. Those efforts appear to have faced trouble in recent weeks.
Hamas is demanding that Israel lift a strict blockade on Gaza, which has crippled the territory’s economy. Israel is seeking the release of two Israelis who are believed to be alive in captivity in Gaza, and the bodies of two Israeli soldiers who died in the 2014 war.
Egypt helped Israel establish this blockade after the Hamas terror group seized power in Gaza in 2007. Israel says the strict blockade is needed for security and to keep Hamas in check. Critics say the blockade amounts to collective punishment on impoverished Gazans.
Hamas has grown increasingly impatient in recent weeks and staged several rounds of violent demonstrations along the border in protest of the blockade. The terror group has also sent over incendiary balloons that have sparked fires in southern Israel.
While Egypt and Israel quietly collaborate on security matters, the Egyptian government walks a tight line with its citizens who largely oppose Israel's policies towards Palestinians.
Egypt also supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Last month, el-Sissi met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Jordanian King Abdullah II, where they stressed support for the two-state solution.
“I think it’s a good sign of the back to normal in the relations between both countries,” Dr. Ofir Winter, Research Fellow at the INSS, told journalists at a Media Central briefing. He said Israeli prime ministers were regularly invited to Egypt before the last ten years.
“The event itself and the fact that it’s a public meeting and at the invitation of President el-Sissi, means there’s interest on the Egyptian side to advance bilateral relations between Egypt and Israel on the one hand but also to deal with very important regional issues, first and foremost the Palestinian issue and the relationship between Israel and Hamas or the situation in Gaza,” said Dr. Ely Karmon, Senior Research Scholar at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism of the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya.
“Also, what happens with Iranian activity in the Middle East,” Karmon told journalists.
Winter said one of the reasons the visit took place now has to do with Egypt’s relations with the Biden administration.
“Cairo is quite concerned about criticism in Washington on issues of human rights abuses and about the ongoing calls in Congress to hold or freeze some of the American, annual economic military aid,” Winter said. Those funds have flowed since Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel in 1979.
Winter said Egypt is keen to enhance its image as an asset in the Middle East. “One of the ways to do so is to play a positive role in mediation between Israel and the Palestinians, including the current efforts we see to revive the peace process,” he said.
According to Winter, during the terms of former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Netanyahu worked to weaken Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas but Egypt wants the opposite. Egypt wants to strengthen Abbas in the hope of weakening Hamas.
He also said the visit isn’t coming from “out of the blue.”
“It’s a very strong strategic relationship of trust that was built between both countries during the last years. Israel and Egypt have security cooperation and also [an] energy partnership,” he added. “I think the visit is an expression of the more mature stage of relations between Jerusalem and Cairo.”
As the first Arab leader to host Bennett, el-Sissi raises his own profile as an original leader, a role that was downgraded somewhat when the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morrocco signed the Abraham Accords with Israel during the last year, he said.