SHARM EL-SHEIKH: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi (right) meets with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in the Egyptian Red Sea resort town of Sharm El-Sheikh. - AFP

CAIRO: Zionist's Naftali Bennett met Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi yesterday, on the first visit to the North African country by a prime minister of the Jewish state in over a decade. Sisi was hosting Bennett in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh to discuss "efforts to revive the peace process" between the Zionists 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 Zionists, after decades of enmity. In May, it played a key role in brokering a ceasefire between Zionists 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 Zionists.

Zionist 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 Sisi. Yesterday'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 said. It also fits with "Egypt's plans to revive the political talks between Zionists and the Palestinian Authority", he added.

Security cooperation

The last meeting between an Egyptian president and an Zionist 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 Zionist embassy in Cairo in 2011. The one-year reign of Egypt's Islamist president Mohamed Morsi from 2012 also proved to be icy, with Zionist suspicious of his Muslim Brotherhood's close ties to Hamas.

Sisi has again positioned Egypt as a regional bulwark of stability, echoing the frequent peace summits overseen by Mubarak before his ouster. Zionists 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. Sisi, in a 2019 interview on CBS, acknowledged Egypt's army was working closely with Zionists in combating "terrorists" in the restive North Sinai.

He underscored Cairo's "wide range of cooperation with the Zionists". The relationship developed after Egypt regained sovereignty over the Sinai Peninsula, which Zionists 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 Islamic State group. The two neighbors have also deepened their ties in the field of energy. Since last year, Egypt has received natural gas from Zionists to liquefy it and re-export it to Europe.

Message to Washington

Bennett's visit follows on from a "long working relationship" that 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 Zionist premier. "Cairo intends once again to signal to the Biden administration its indispensable role in stabilizing the Palestinian-Zionist conflict," Shama said.

Popular sentiment on the ground in Egypt has also toned down from being resolutely hostile towards Zionists, amid a more severe crackdown on dissent under Sisi. "Sisi has succeeded in taming the opposition and absorbing other political movements," said Cairo University political science professor Mustapha Kamel Al-Sayyid. Zionists last year signed normalization deals with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan under the aegis of Donald Trump's administration. - AFP