At a symbolic juncture of dates – the 28th anniversary of the signing of the Oslo Accords, and just before Yom Kippur – Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Monday traveled to Egypt for a meeting with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi.
Bennett got an exceptional reception at Sharm el-Sheikh. First there was an official Egyptian announcement of the visit, about which little had been said in Israel in recent days. Afterward, an official picture of the two leaders was distributed, with both nation’s flags behind them. The meeting itself lasted three hours.
Bennett’s predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, met many times with Sissi, with some of the meetings on Egyptian soil, but generally these encounters were kept secret at the president’s request. The relationship got closer over the past decade, but very little of that was demonstrated in public.
Sissi and Netanyahu appreciated each other as allies and expanded the security and intelligence cooperation between the two countries. Egypt was especially grateful to Israel for its assistance, in the summer of 2013, in persuading the Obama administration not to impose broad sanctions on Cairo despite the fact that Sissi and his generals had pulled off a military coup against the elected government of Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Bennett is starting his relationship with Egypt on the right foot. The public encounter also serves Sissi’s interests at this time. Egypt wants to solidify its status as a mediator in achieving a long-term arrangement between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, and perhaps even as the one who launches a diplomatic process on the Israel-Palestinian track. In the background are the tense relations between Egypt and the United States due to the Biden administration’s discomfort over Cairo’s human rights violations. The Americans clearly regard the Bennett-Lapid government positively. A demonstration of good ties with Jerusalem could help the Egyptian president in Washington.
Meanwhile, security incidents were casting a pall in the background. Apparently inspired by the escape of Palestinian security prisoners from Gilboa Prison, there has been a resurgence of violent demonstrations and terror attacks in the territories. At the Gush Etzion junction a Palestinian tried to stab a soldier and was shot, wounded and arrested. In Jerusalem, a Palestinian from Hebron who was in the city illegally stabbed two yeshiva students in a store near the central bus station. Both were wounded. Border policewomen shot and wounded the attacker, who was arrested. For three straight nights, rockets were fired from Gaza into Israel, which responded by bombing Hamas positions and weapons manufacturing sites.
But the Israeli response to the rockets from Gaza has been relatively restrained, and the government has also gradually walked back the policy of a military response to every incendiary balloon. The restraint is related to contacts with the Egyptians. Israel must first prove to Sissi that it is giving Egypt’s mediation efforts a chance. If these are exhausted without leading to a more stable cease-fire, then further escalation is possible.
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Palestinian factions, including Islamic Jihad, are apparently responsible for the rocket fire, but it is likely happening with the consent of Hamas, if not with its encouragement. The organization is dissatisfied with the arrangement imposed by Israel – the delivery of two-thirds of the Qatari monthly financial grant, without the payment of salaries to Hamas workers. As long as the last-third problem, equivalent to $10 million, is not resolved, sporadic fire can be expected. Hamas also wants to speed up the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip, while bypassing the Israeli demand to resolve the issue of the captives and MIAs. The gaps between the parties are probably too wide to settle very soon.
Hamas stubbornness, along with the resumption of rocket fire four months after Operation Guardian of the Walls, is leading to pessimistic assessments on the Israeli side. People close to Bennett and in top security echelons are predicting renewed violence in Gaza shortly. As noted, however, an Egyptian mediation effort will likely be made before this, in the hopes of bringing calm.