Given the strategic and political significance of the relationship between Israel and Egypt, the first ever visit by an Israeli Prime Minister (PM) in a decade to Egypt must be seen as a way forward by both the countries to reorient their relationship, which apparently had lost track amid a decade of political disorder in the Arab world. The newly elected PM of Israel, Naftali Bennett was on the two-day official visit to Egypt from 13-14 September 2021. The last visit to Egypt was in February 2011, when the then President of Egypt Hosni Mubarak had hosted then Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu . Also, the visit of Foreign Minister in the cabinet of Netanyahu, Gabi Ashkenazi to Egypt in May, 2021 was the first in thirteen years, after the last visit by then Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni in 2008.[i]There are, however, unconfirmed reports of secret meeting between Netanyahu and Al-Sisi of Egypt in the past when the former had met the latter in Egypt in May 2018. They had, nevertheless met at the sidelines of the UN General Assembly annual meeting in New York in 2017.[ii]
During his visit to Israel on August 18, 2021, the Director of Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate, Kamil Abbas extended the invitation to PM Bennett on behalf of President Al-Sisi to visit Egypt. During the same visit, Abbas also met the Israeli Defence Minister, Hamas leaders and other senior members of the Palestinian Authority (PA).[iii] PM Bennett was received by President Al-Sisi at Red Sea resort town of Sharm El-Sheikh and it was one of the warmest welcome ever received by any Israeli PM as Israeli flags were seen flying high at the Sharm El-Sheikh airport and the roads to Sharm El-Sheikh resort were lined up with Israeli flags poles, which seemed to be a new norm.[iv]
There were several important points discussed by the two leaders. First, they held a one-on-one meeting on a series of regional and global issues and later held a delegation-level meeting, which was attended by Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri, National Security Advisor of Israel, Eyal Hult, Political Advisor to Bennett, Shimrit Mier, Military Advisor, General Avi Gale and Israel’s Hostage Coordinator, Yaron Bloom.
Though the primary objective of the meeting between President Al-Sisi and PM Bennett was to take stock of the bilateral relationship, it was also aimed to revisit the Israel-Palestine peace process which has been lying in a state of limbo for almost seven years due to various reasons, such as Israel’s continued settlement in West Bank, disavowing the two-state solutions and repeated rocket attacks on Gaza-Israel border by the Hamas. Before the start of the visit, as a mark of friendly gesture, Israeli government announced to reopen the Taba crossing and to remove the restrictions imposed due to COVID-19 last year on Israelis to visit Sinai which would no doubt boost the Egyptian tourism.
Both sides also decided to start a new air services between Cairo and Tel Aviv, with the Egypt Air would begin to fly from October 2021, four days a week. What makes this move special is that the airplanes of the Egypt Air would have an Egyptian flag for the first time, which has not been the case with other air operation services like Sinai Airlines, much older air service between the two countries . This change bears an important symbolic significance and is an indicative of making the mutual relationship more overt and robust.
The recent visit by Mr. Bennett to Egypt would, no doubt, take the bilateral relationship to a new height and the economic and security engagement between the two would deepen further, particularly, the security cooperation which happens to be the pillar of the Camp David Accord signed in 1979 which made Egypt the first Arab nation to establish diplomatic ties with Israel. In a recent interview, President Al-Sisi had said that Egypt is coordinating closely with Israeli defence forces to combat the terrorism in Sinai Peninsula and had described the current security cooperation between the two as being the closest ever in the history.[v] Last year, Egypt-Israel signed a fifteen-year agreement to import gas worth US $ 15 billion from Israel to be re-liquefed in Egypt for further exports to the European countries.[vi]
Israeli PM raised the issue of Rafah crossing in Gaza which has always been a security concern for Israel, as it is often used by the Hamas and its other affiliates for terror-related anti-Israeli activities.[vii]
The issue of cooperation in the field of energy between the two countries was also discussed at length in view of the growing aspirations of other countries in the region like Turkey, Cyprus, Greece in the field of energy exploration and its marketing.[viii]
Apart from discussing bilateral issues, Egyptian side is reported to have raised the issue of Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), a new source of regional conflict, with PM Bennet. One of the veteran diplomats in Egypt has recently, in a TV show, sought the cooperation of Israel along with the United States (US) to convince Ethiopia to refrain from the third filling of GERD reservoir.[ix] Given the current drive of Israel to bring more Arab countries into its diplomatic fold like it did recently with Sudan and Morocco, Israel would aspire to do it as it would cement its ties further with all major GERD stakeholders: Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan. Ethiopia and Israel already enjoy strong security and economic relationship and since the days of late Ethiopian PM Meles Zenawi, Israel is reported to be involved with GERD project in terms of its security and protection.[x]
After the meeting PM Bennett said that, “if Israel today has been able to reach out to other Arab countries, the credit for this should go to Egypt because Egypt was the first country to establish ties with us and both sides should invest in strengthening the ties further and this is what we did today”.[xi]
A Fresh Beginning on Palestine:
On Palestine, both sides discussed three major issues: preservation of current ceasefire and de-escalation of tension in Gaza; poor living condition of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails and missing members of Hamas and Israeli defence forces and evolution of mechanism for the resumption of dialogue between Palestine and Israel.[xii] Any level of discussion on Palestine is quite important at this juncture as the new coalition government of extreme right and extremist rightist has repeatedly refused to enter into any negotiation with the Palestinian leadership as Bennett has said more than once that there was no point talking to a person, perhaps referring to PA President, Mahmoud Abbas, who took Israel to International Court of Justice.[xiii] Bennett is also fearful of losing his government in case he goes ahead with the positive gesture towards Palestine because he is heading a fragile and rightist coalition government.
It is worth mentioning here that discussion on Palestine took place not long after the visit of Bennett to the US where President Biden called both sides to resume negotiations. Biden has already announced to reopen the US Consulate in East Jerusalem and restore ties with the PA.[xiv]. Before the current Egypt-Israel Summit, President Al-Sisi had also hosted King Abdullah II of Jordan and PA President, Mahmoud Abbas on September 2, 2021 at Sharm El-Sheikh. This successive meeting on Palestine comes at a time when Egypt is redefining its role in the region amid the growing ambitions of many other regional powers to also join the rhetoric on Palestine. Further, by reaching out to all parties to Palestine-Israel conflict, Egypt has indicated that Egypt cannot abandon its traditional and central role on Israel-Palestine peace process amid the ongoing realignment of diplomatic and strategic template in the region.
The government of Israel not only showed its commitments towards deepening ties with Egypt by announcing a set of pro-Egypt policy measures before Bennett’s visit, but it did something similar on Palestine as well. For the first time since the withdrawal of Israel from Gaza in 2005, new Foreign Minister in the Bennett government, Yair Lapid revealed a new plan for Gaza in a lecture in the Institute of Counter-Terrorism Policy of Richman University. The new plan offered by Israel is being called ‘Economy for Security’ plan. The plan talks of Israel’s participation in Gaza reconstruction program like improving the electricity, transportation and health network, opening sea port for Gaza and linking it to the West Bank provided the control of Gaza is transferred to the PA from the present control of Hamas.[xv] Lapid also mentioned that the plan has been already discussed with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leaders, US, Russia and EU member countries. He further emphasized upon the need for the people of Gaza to realise that it is the Hamas which continues to prevent them from leading a normal life.[xvi] He also mentioned that a mix of global economic aid, Israeli-Palestine cooperation and a quiescent Hamas could change the fate of Gaza.[xvii] It is worth mentioning here that such economic packages in the past have been rejected many times by the Palestinian leadership and most prominent being the one that had come during the Manama Conference in June 2019, as a part of the Deal of the Century[xviii]
Meanwhile, Bennett has refused to have any direct negotiation with the Hamas and also no progress could be made on exchange of prisoners between Hamas and Israeli government and the release of Palestinians detained since the last ceasefire in May, 2021. Perhaps the recent incident of escaping of six Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jail might have prevented any headway as far as exchange of prisoners between Hamas and Israeli government and the release of Palestinian detainees are concerned.
The meeting was a fresh effort on the part of Egypt to bring the Palestinian issue to the forefront of regional politics, which had become subdued due to shifting priorities of regional and global diplomacy and further due to growing disenchantment with the Palestinian leadership as the election for the PA and legislative body are long due. President Abbas seems to have lost his credentials to large extent as he has not been able to stop even a single settlement in West Bank despite 28 years of negotiations.[xix] Contrary to its desire, Egypt failed to receive any assurance of direct or early negotiation, let alone the two-state solution, between Israel and Palestine as Bennett seemed more interested in preserving the current ceasefire in Gaza and evade any further escalation between Hamas and Israeli forces, where the role of Egypt has always been very significant. Egypt has brokered many ceasefires in the past and hosted many meetings to bring the warring political factions in Palestine to the negotiating table.
The meeting between President Al-Sisi and PM Bennett, no doubt, would deepen and diversify the premise of the relationship between the two countries. Egypt is likely to benefit from this meeting economically and militarily as Bennett’s government has allowed the Israelis to visit Sinai. This would boost the Egyptian tourism. Security cooperation would also deepen further because both are fighting the same forces of terrorism.
As far as the progress on Palestine is concerned, the meeting offers little to change the status quo and the stalemate is likely to continue as the current ruling dispensation in Israel is not only a mix of extreme and extreme right, but it also represents a fragile coalition which finds it difficult to show any peaceful gesture towards the Palestine. The recent meeting might help in preserving the ceasefire and stop future escalation and improve the Palestinian prisoners’ situation in Israel jail, but expecting any breakthrough in Israel-Palestine peace process would be an inconclusive idea at this stage.
By holding this summit, both the leaders have bolstered their respective image at home. If Bennett has told his political opponents in Israel that he is strong enough to hold direct and open talks with the important country like Egypt and latter institutionalise the relationship that was established in 1979, President Al-Sisi sent a clear message to the regional rivals and the US as well, that when it comes to Palestine, Egypt is indispensible and no country can deprive Egypt of its key role in the Israeli-Arab peace process. The visit is likely to widen the scope for Israel to not only to establish diplomatic ties with more Arab countries in the near future but take the existing relationship further to the strategic level with those countries that have recently established ties with Israel like Sudan, Morocco, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
*Dr Fazzur Rahman Siddiqui is a Research Fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: The views are of the author.
[v]Bennett Meets Sisi in fist ever visit by Israeli PM in a Decade, France 24 Arabic, September 13, 2021, Accessed https://bit.ly/3Ag3dkR September 15, 2021,
[xviii] It is a peace plan proposed by Trump Administration to resolve the Arab-Israel conflict