An Israeli delegation arrived in Cairo Sunday for discussions with Egyptian officials on security arrangements to bring about the reopening of the Israeli Embassy there, which has been closed for eight months. Israeli officials said the talks were making good progress, which could mean that Ambassador David Govrin will return there shortly.
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The officials said the Israeli delegation included representatives of the Shin Bet security service and the Foreign Ministry. The Israeli representatives met with their counterparts in Egyptian Intelligence, that country’s internal security apparatus and other Egyptian officials.
According to the Israeli officials, Sunday’s talks were a continuation of several rounds that took place on the issue in recent months. Over the past few weeks, they added, understandings in principle had been reached on substantially boosting the security arrangements around the compound where the embassy and the ambassador’s residence are located. Sunday’s meeting was aimed at translating those understandings into practical security procedures.
“There is positive progress in the talks,” said one official. “The Egyptians are moving toward approving the requests our security people have made. Now, among other things, we need a final decision by the Shin Bet head and the prime minister that the security arrangements are sufficient. If there’s a decision to return the ambassador to Cairo it will make both sides happy, but only when we see Ambassador Govrin landing in Cairo can we know it’s final.”
Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said he would not comment on issues relating to the security of Israeli representative offices or envoys abroad.
The ministerial liaison with the Knesset, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, on Sunday sent MK Merav Michaeli (Zionist Union) a response to her query regarding the Cairo embassy. She had submitted the query on July 5, following a debate that she had initiated in the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee’s subcommittee on intelligence matters.
Levin, writing on behalf of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, noted that the embassy had been evacuated solely for security reasons and the prime minister had instructed defense officials to get the embassy staff back to Cairo as soon as possible once the security issues at the compound were resolved.
“In the months that have passed since the embassy evacuation, Foreign Ministry officials and senior defense officials have been working with Egyptian security officials to achieve this objective,” Levin wrote. “It seems that these efforts are bearing fruit and that the issue is about to be resolved in a manner that will allow the return of the ambassador and his staff to Cairo soon.”
In December, Govrin and the embassy staff were evacuated from Cairo for security reasons, apparently a warning of a possible attack, and the embassy has remained unmanned since. This is the longest period in which the Cairo embassy has been abandoned since the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty was signed nearly 40 years ago.
Since the attack on the Cairo embassy in September 2011, when thousands of protesters stormed the building, there had been a gradual reduction of the Israeli presence in Cairo even before the embassy was evacuated eight months ago. Israeli diplomats would stay in Cairo only three to four days a week and worked from the ambassador’s residence. Over four years ago Israel tried to get Egypt to agree to move the embassy to another location, but with no results.
Egyptian reluctance led Israel to finally give in and reopen its embassy in a small building in the ambassador’s residential compound in September 2015. Slightly more than a year later, even that limited Israeli presence in Cairo was removed.
Israel feared for peace treaty
The evacuation of the embassy in December and Foreign Ministry fears that the peace treaty with Egypt may be eroded led to a debate a few weeks ago on the issue by the foreign affairs subcommittee of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. The debate was initiated by MK Ksenia Svetlova (Zionist Union), who said she was concerned that Egyptian-Israeli relations were being conducted through a limited number of military officers on both sides and special envoy Isaac Molho’s discussions with a few senior Egyptian officials.
“The absence of the Israeli ambassador in Egypt is being interpreted by many as a de-facto giving up on an embassy in Cairo,” Svetlova wrote, in a letter to Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman Avi Dichter and subcommittee chairman Robert Ilatov. “The inability to advance business or diplomatic ties from there leaves this arena empty.”
Sources who were updated on the details of the Knesset discussion said that Foreign Ministry representatives who attended made it clear that not having a functioning embassy in Cairo made maintaining relations with Egypt very difficult. They added that the Foreign Ministry contacts with the Egyptian government were limited to talks with the Egyptian ambassador in Tel Aviv and his staff. They said they felt that all the dimensions of relations with Egypt were deteriorating other than in the security realm, and stressed that ties with Egypt cannot be based solely on security interests.
Representatives of the military and of the Economy and Industry Ministry expressed concern about the state of relations with Egypt and agreed that Israel should work to get the embassy reopened and return to a state of diplomatic, civil and economic relations with Egypt, not just security ones. By contrast, representatives of the National Security Council said that while they recognize that there are many components of the relationship between Israel and Egypt and they should be broadened, as far as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is concerned the diplomatic and civilian relations with Egypt were a lower priority than the security ties.
“The people from the Prime Minister’s Office said that the security relations with Egypt are good,” said a source familiar with what transpired at the meeting. “They noted that the Egyptian military and the security apparatuses conduct most of [Egypt’s] foreign relations anyway, so that even if the reopening of the embassy is important, the relationship with the Egyptian military is more important.”