Despite Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked’s insistence on continuing with the stale rhetoric of the Netanyahu era, and despite her clumsy efforts to broadcast right-wing business as usual while sabotaging any effort to re-open clogged and rusty Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic channels (“Abu Mazen is paying terrorists who murder Jews and is prosecuting IDF soldiers in The Hague; he’s not a partner”), the government of change is continuing to take its first commendable diplomatic steps.
The meeting between Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi in Sharm el-Sheikh on Monday was the first official and public visit by an Israeli prime minister to Egypt in the last decade. Benjamin Netanyahu and Sissi met many times over the years, but these meetings were unofficial and mostly undercover. Moreover, Egypt went out of its way to publicly broadcast its respect for the diplomacy of Israel’s new government and for the person heading it, placing Israel’s flag behind Bennett for the photo of their meeting, a gesture never made for Netanyahu or, before him, Ehud Olmert.
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The relations between Israel and its neighbor Egypt are important in and of themselves, and any step that could bring the two nations, not just their leaders, closer, is significant and desirable. But Egypt is also important as a mediator between Israel and the Hamas leadership in Gaza, and as the leader of the international community’s efforts to rebuild the Gaza Strip. Foreign Minister Yair Lapid presented on Sunday a two-stage initiative for the rehabilitation of Gaza (“the economy in exchange for security”). The plan is not innovative in its principles, but its presentation reinforces the message that Israel’s government wants to open a new page in its relations with its nearby neighbors, including the Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
The meeting between Defense Minister Benny Gantz and the chairman of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas also heralds a change. This was the first official meeting between an Israeli minister and the chairman since 2010. Shaked and some of Bennett’s advisers distanced themselves from the meeting, but this seems to be a policy of left-wing cop/right-wing cop. One should also note the secret meeting between Bennett and Jordan’s King Abdullah in Amman last July. This ended years of a rupture between the leaders of both countries, a rupture also bearing Netanyahu’s mark.
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The fostering of relations with Middle Eastern states is important, but not at the expense of neglecting the older relations existing between Israel and its immediate neighbors. Peace with Egypt and Jordan and progress in diplomatic relations with the Palestinians top Israel’s strategic and moral interests. One can only hope that the government of change continues with the diplomatic road it has taken while ignoring background noise.
The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.