Analysis |

The Middle East Club: In Bennett’s Meeting With Sissi and Bin Zayed, More Than Iran on Agenda

The warming of ties between Israel and Arab countries shows that its international standing doesn't depend on its leader – but another issue is being pushed to the side

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, on Tuesday.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, on Tuesday.Credit: Egyptian Presidency / AFP
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Five years after the death of Shimon Peres, his battered vision of a “new Middle East” has received a significant energy boost, in the shape of (what was supposed to be) a secret meeting in Sharm al-Sheikh this week between the leaders of Israel, Egypt and the UAE.

This is an additional and tangible expression of the dramatic change in the regional agenda and in Israel’s status since the signing of the Abraham Accords.

This exclusive “Club Med” now includes, besides Israel, its erstwhile greatest rivals – Egypt, Jordan, the UAE, and its old-new friend Turkey. With U.S. backing, these countries are working together to advance common security and diplomatic interests, chief among them being Iran. They are also working to resolve more mundane economic and energy-related crises.

Recent months have shown that Israel’s international standing does not depend on the identity of the person at its head. Bennett, lacking diplomatic experience, entered the shoes of his predecessor and was warmly welcomed by regional and world leaders who view Israel as a strategic ally and a significant gateway to the American and Russian administrations.

The summit in Sharm al-Sheikh had been planned for a long time. Bennett, who assumed office eight months ago, met Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi for the first time last September, followed by a meeting with Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed in December.

According to Israeli sources, close and trusting relations were forged among the three leaders, enabling the planning and execution of the summit. For the first time in many years, an Israeli prime minister slept on Egyptian soil.

Sissi made many friendly gestures, even accompanying Bennett to his plane at the end of their meeting. The dramatic meeting was not supposed to be made public. It was hidden from the media until its existence leaked on Monday.

Officially, the three participants decided to remain vague on what decisions or agreements, if any, were made. The timing was no less important than the actual holding of the summit, given the imminent signing of the nuclear accord with Iran – and the countries opposing this move demonstrated their reservations.

In addition to discussions on Iran and Assad's efforts to re-kindle their relationship with Arab nations, on the agenda was also the war between Russia and Ukraine and its implications for the region.

Bennett shared with his partners details of the progress of his mediation efforts and the three leaders discussed solutions for the wheat crisis in Egypt as well as the pressure to increase the output of oil in the Middle East in order to reduce dependence on Russian and Iranian energy.

The tightening of relations between Israel and regional countries signals another change. The Palestinian question, previously the cause of ongoing confrontation in relations between Israel and Arab states, is gradually being shoved to the margins.

Arab leaders are no longer hesitating to cooperate with an Israeli prime minister who openly declares his sweeping opposition to any diplomatic process with the Palestinian Authority.

The Palestinian issue was discussed at the summit meeting, but Bennett was steadfast in adhering to his government’s narrative – espousing the improvement of the economic situation for Palestinians living under the PA, though evading the topic of diplomatic initiatives.

Bennett said in recent months that he has embraced a new policy in which “Israel is active across the entire playing field,” cooperating with any country that wishes to reciprocate.

The fact that Washington has taken a step back from its active role in Middle East issues to focus on China and Russia has pushed countries in the region with common interests to cooperate despite past disputes and a dismal shared history.

The intention to repair Israel and Turkey's soured relationship, as was expressed in the meeting between Presidents Herzog and Erdogan two weeks ago, has become an inseparable part of this process.

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