Egypt FM's Visit Only a Limited Success Unless Israel Follows Through

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Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, left, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a visit to Israel, July 10, 2016.
Foreign Minister Shoukry, left, with Netanyahu in Jerusalem, July 10, 2016. Credit: Lior Mizrahi

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry’s visit to Israel on Sunday symbolizes one of Benjamin Netanyahu’s main achievements as prime minister in recent years. Netanyahu has managed to preserve Israel's peace agreement with Egypt despite the revolution there in 2011 and the subsequent ascension to power of the Muslim Brotherhood, and he has succeeded in forging dramatically closer bilateral ties since the 2013 military coup that brought Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi to power.

Shoukry’s very public and well-publicized visit, nine years after his predecessor, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, was here for the last time, is a diplomatic achievement in and of itself. Over the last two years, the Egyptian and Israeli leaderships have been in regular contact. There have been frequent phone calls between Netanyahu and Sissi, trips between Jerusalem and Cairo by Israeli and Egyptian envoys, and more. But until today, all this was kept at a low profile at best, and in many cases completely secret.

To understand the background to Shoukry’s visit to Israel, it’s necessary to go back to May 17, when Sissi gave a speech at the inauguration of new power plant. He used that speech to urge every political party in Israel to unite around a plan to advance peace with the Palestinians, adding that the Arab states would help with this. The person who pushed the Egyptian president to make these statements was former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is one of his closest advisers.

Sissi’s speech was meant to be the glue that would bind Netanyahu to Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog and enable the prime minister to establish a unity government with Herzog’s Zionist Union faction – one that would focus on the peace process with the Palestinians. In exchange, Egypt was supposed to get other Arab states to join the process. But the entire move went off the rails when Netanyahu decided to reject Zionist Union’s demands regarding the peace process and instead bring Avigdor Lieberman’s right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party into the government, while making Lieberman himself the defense minister.

Two days after Sissi’s speech and one day after he decided to give the Defense Ministry to Lieberman, Netanyahu called the Egyptian president. During that conversation, the prime minister said he was still committed to advancing the president’s initiative, and that Lieberman not only would not interfere, but would actually help. Netanyahu also promised that after Lieberman was sworn in, he would issue a positive statement about the Arab Peace Initiative, a 2002 proposal for ending the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Sissi made it clear during the call that in order for him to continue advancing his own initiative, Netanyahu would have to take substantive steps toward the Palestinians on the ground. Freezing construction in the settlements would be one example of such a step; another is transferring more power to the Palestinian Authority in Area C, the part of the West Bank to which the Oslo Accords assigned full Israeli control.

Shoukry’s visit is essentially meant to collect on the promise made in that phone call.

An Israeli source familiar with the issue said that Egypt had received a “green light” for its initiative from the leaders of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. But for the plan to move forward, they need to see what Netanyahu is bringing to the table on the Palestinian issue. The premier let the Egyptians understand that he would be willing to consider taking significant steps as part of a regional initiative that would open the way to direct talks with Arab states alongside talks with the Palestinians.

The Egyptians didn’t break the rules of the game after Netanyahu appointed Lieberman as defense minister; they are willing to continue promoting their initiative. One reason for this is that Egypt, which is a member of the UN Security Council, doesn’t want to find itself stuck between Israel and the Palestinians in another few months over an explosive draft resolution submitted to the council.

Thus Sissi is seeking an alternative. And he has nothing to lose. In the worst case, he will have tried and Netanyahu will have once again refused.

But what Netanyahu could have done on May 17 with Herzog and Zionist Union, it’s hard to envision him doing now with Lieberman and Yisrael Beiteinu – not to mention Naftali Bennett and his Habayit Hayehudi party. As long as Netanyahu doesn’t find a solution to this problem, the diplomatic achievement he racked up yesterday will be of limited value.

Shoukry’s visit could be the start of a diplomatic breakthrough between Israel and the Arab states. But it could also turn out to be a one-time event that doesn’t lead anywhere and will be quickly forgotten.