The tectonic plates that govern the Middle East are in constant motion. Some tend towards rupture; others, less frequently, towards union. This is where bilateral relations between Egypt and Israel seem to be. After a decade without official contact at the highest level, the leaders of the two countries met again at an important summit in the resort town of Sharm El-Sheikh, located between the desert of the Sinai Peninsula and the Red Sea.
This was the location chosen by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi to host the new Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Monday. The same place that Hosni Mubarak once chose to meet Benjamin 'Bibi' Netanyahu, one of the last leaders to visit the Egyptian autocrat before his fall. However, it is known that Netanyahu himself travelled in 2018 'in pectore' to Egypt to meet Al-Sisi first-hand and that the two held several meetings on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York.
The former advisor to 'Bibi' and, in the end, the main person responsible for removing him from power after 12 years in office, travelled to Sharm El-Sheikh accompanied by an entourage made up of the president of the Security Council, Lieutenant General Ali Gil, the prime minister's military secretary and the Israeli ambassador to Cairo, Shimrit Meir. They met with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and intelligence chief Eyal Holata.
The terms of the conversation revolved around the Gaza conflict. The Strip has been the subject of recurrent clashes between the Islamic militia Hamas and the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). Recent days have seen renewed clashes reminiscent of the climax of May, an 11-day period in which more than 250 people were killed. Cairo played a mediating role that proved crucial to unlocking a ceasefire agreement.
Egypt's position on the issue is crystal clear. "The president affirmed Egypt's support for all efforts to achieve a comprehensive peace in the Middle East, based on the two-state solution and resolutions of international legitimacy, which contributes to enhancing the security and prosperity of all peoples in the region," the Egyptian presidential office said after the meeting.
Al-Sisi held talks with Jordan's King Abdullah II and Mahmoud Abbas in Cairo in early September, where they agreed to revive the neglected two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For the three leaders, the Palestinian people have the right to an independent state with Jerusalem as its capital. Israel flatly rejects this proposition and, with the new leadership of Bennett, the standard-bearer for Israeli settlers, this position seems immovable.
In Gaza, however, Egypt's approach is ostensibly different. Egypt has a close relationship with the Palestinian Authority, but not with the Islamic Resistance Movement, which dominates the Strip and vies with West Bank managers for Palestinian backing. Indeed, Israel has enforced a border blockade with Egyptian acquiescence and cooperation since 2007, when Hamas took control of the coastal area. The Islamic militia is demanding the lifting of the economic siege, while Israel is demanding the release of two Israeli civilians and the return of the remains of two soldiers killed in a 2014 war.
Both sides agreed to give an economic boost to the area, which was reduced to rubble after Israeli bombardment in May. Egypt is concerned about the social and political consequences of Gaza's precarious state. Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid proposed building new infrastructure in the area in exchange for a de-escalation of the conflict by Hamas. However, Lapid stressed that this 'will not be achieved without the support and involvement of our Egyptian partners and their ability to talk to all those involved'.
The lifting of Gazan ruins was not the only topic of discussion. Economic ties between Egypt and Israel were strengthened by the reopening of the Taba crossing, an Egyptian city that serves as a border crossing to Israel and through which thousands of tourists pass each year, and the resumption of Egyptair airline operations in Israeli airspace. The pressing crisis in Lebanon and the Ethiopian dam conflict were also discussed.
After four wars, Egypt reached a historic peace agreement with Israel in 1979 that still stands today. The African country was the first Arab state to do so in a climate of controversy for the Islamic world, yet to date the two countries have been the closest partners in the entire region despite many ups and downs and clashes. Partly because of Washington's backing, which keeps them both in its orbit.
"Together, we can strengthen the ties between our two countries and work towards a more stable, secure and prosperous future for the region," Naftali Bennett said after the meeting with Al-Sisi. "We have created a basis for a deep connection in the future," he concluded. The two sides collaborate on security issues and have strong economic ties, especially in the energy sector. These ties are also focused on the waters of the eastern Mediterranean.
"Israeli-Egyptian relations are a strategic asset for our national security," declared Minister Lapid, who will become prime minister in two years' time. However, the sticking point is the Palestinian issue, an issue that Cairo intends to influence in the medium term. This is why, despite more than four decades of relations, Egyptian-Israeli relations have remained frosty.