Egypt Offers to Host Direct Confidence-building Talks Between Israel and Palestinians

Senior Western diplomats and Palestinian officials tell Haaretz that Cairo talks would focus on deescalating tensions, with Jordanian and Egyptian officials in attendance.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with Egypt's Sameh Shoukry in first official trip by an Egyptian foreign minister to Jerusalem in nine years. July 10, 2016.
Dan Balilty, AP

Egypt wants to host direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians in Cairo with the participation of senior Egyptian and Jordanian officials. The goal of the talks will be to develop a package of confidence-building measures that would lead to calm in the occupied territories and improve the atmosphere between the parties, Western diplomats and senior Palestinians close to the matter told Haaretz on Sunday. They said the matter was due to be discussed during Sunday's Jerusalem meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry.

This is the first visit of an Egyptian foreign minister to Israel in nine years. The last visit, in July 2007, was by Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul-Gheit, when he came to Jerusalem with his Jordanian counterpart Abdul Ilah Mohammad Khatib to discuss the Arab peace initiative with then-foreign minister Tzipi Livni and then-prime minister Ehud Olmert.

Shawn Baldwin, Bloomberg

Shoukry came to Jerusalem as the emissary of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi. In May, Sissi gave a speech in which he called on all the political parties in Israel to unite around the advancement of the peace process with the Palestinians and called on the Arab countries to promote the process. Sissi’s speech was part of a process in which former British Prime Minister Tony Blair also took part, intending to lay the groundwork for the Zionist Union to join the coalition.

Shoukry landed Sunday afternoon in Israel and headed for a meeting with Netanyahu at his office in Jerusalem. The two met in a larger forum for about 90 minutes and later met again in a more limited group for dinner at the prime minister’s official residence.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry during a news conference at the foreign ministry in Cairo, Egypt, July 13, 2015.
Mohamed Abd El Ghanym, Reuters

Netanyahu’s special emissary Isaac Molho coordinated the Egyptian foreign minister’s visit. Over the past few months Molho went to Cairo almost every week to discuss the visit with Sissi.

Two weeks ago Shoukry visited Ramallah and met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and with the secretary general of Fatah, Saeb Erekat. According to Western diplomats and senior Palestinians, that meeting was the first time the idea came up of establishing a working group consisting of Israel, the Palestinians, Egypt and Jordan, that would formulate confidence-building measures. The idea, which was brought up by the Palestinians, was accepted by the Egyptians, who said they would bring it up to Netanyahu.

Isaac Molho
Tess Scheflan

For Israel, such a working group could lead to direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Various issues could come up in such talks, such as Palestinian moves to fight terror and stop incitement and Israeli moves to freeze some construction in the settlements, transfer civil powers to the Palestinians and ease economic conditions in the Palestinian Authority.

Shoukry hinted at an Egyptian proposal in statements to the media before the meeting with Netanyahu, noting that his visit was intended to complete talks he had in Ramallah and to bring the parties to a point where they would take serious steps to implement previous agreements and understandings and to apply the two-state solution.

“Achieving the vision of the two-state solution requires steps for building confidence, as well as a genuine will that does not waver away under any circumstances,” Shoukry told Netanyahu at the beginning of the meeting, adding that Egypt was committed to supporting Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Shoukry noted that the current situation could crush the hopes of the Palestinians for a state along the 1967 lines with East Jerusalem as its capital, and the aspiration of millions of Israelis to live in peace and security and that the situation was even more dangerous in light of the terror raging in the region.

“My visit comes in the context of President’s Sissi’s vision for establishing peace between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples – bringing this long conflict to an end,” he said. “This will have a far-reaching and dramatic positive impact on the conditions in the entire Middle East,” Shoukry said.

Netanyahu said at the beginning of the meeting that he welcomed Shoukry’s initiative, and called on the Palestinians “to follow the courageous example of Egypt and Jordan and join us for direct negotiations. This is the only way we can address all the outstanding issues between us and turn the vision of peace based on two states for two peoples into a reality,” he said.

Senior officials in Jerusalem said following the meeting between Netanyahu and Shoukry that the prime minister had raised the matter of the bodies of soldiers and of civilians missing in Gaza and asked for Egypt to help return them to Israel. The senior officials said that Shoukry answered affirmatively.

The officials said the atmosphere at the meeting was very good and that discussions encompassed many issues, and speaking broadly, regional issues and the advancement of peace and security with the Palestinian Authority and countries in the region were discussed,” the officials said. “There’s also a positive change on the part of Egypt, which comes across in their willingness to publicly express the good relations with Israel,” they added.