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Bennett-Sissi meeting shows Egypt wants to expand Israel ties, but up to a point

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Israeli officials — not least of all the prime minister — expressed great satisfaction and optimism after Naftali Bennett’s first meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi that the cold peace that Israel has made do with since 1979 is about to thaw.

Bennett said after the Monday visit to Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, that he had “an important and very good meeting” with Sissi, in which the two “laid the foundation for deep ties moving forward.”

Before getting on his flight back to Israel, Bennett said that the two leaders discussed broadening trade and tourism, striking a hopeful tone that there would be a shift from the largely behind-the-scenes ties toward a greater public embrace.

There were certainly reasons for that optimism. The invitation, initiated by Sissi and delivered through intelligence chief Abbas Kamel during his August visit to Jerusalem, is significant in and of itself. It had been a decade since an Israeli leader made a public visit to Egypt, and Sissi could have made do with a quiet sitdown with Bennett on the sidelines of the upcoming United Nations General Assembly in New York.

Instead, Bennett was treated to a very public meeting with Sissi, complete with joint statements to the press, an Israeli flag flying behind him and front-page coverage in Egyptian newspapers.

But Israel — and Bennett — should be careful not to get too far ahead of themselves. Anti-Israel sentiment dominates Egyptian society, including among its elites, and Sissi has no intention of making trouble for his regime by stirring up resentment over his approach to Israel.

“The invitation does not indicate a readiness on the part of Egypt to move toward full normalization, or to deepen bilateral economic, civil society and cultural relations,” cautioned Moshe Albo, senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at Reichman University in Herlizya.

“The meeting was meant to strengthen Cairo’s vital role in Jerusalem and in Washington, and to leverage it to advance interests at the heart of Egypt’s national security,” he said.

Egypt finds itself facing a number of significant challenges, and Bennett’s visit could help it confront those at the top of the agenda of decision-makers in Cairo.

Leading that list are Egypt’s ties with the US.

Since the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Egypt has been firmly in the pro-US camp. Bipartisan support for aid to Egypt has long been a fixture of US policy. Egypt receives more foreign aid from Washington than any country except Israel, and the bilateral military ties are deep and varied.

During the Obama presidency, both sides took a long, critical look at the relationship. In January 2011, Egyptians took the streets to protest Hosni Mubarak, the pro-Western president who had ruled Egypt for 30 years. Obama eventually supported protesters’ demands for Mubarak’s removal. Officials in Israel and Saudi Arabia were stunned, seeing the threat as a betrayal of a loyal US ally.

The US administration ignored regional allies in legitimizing the election of Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi a year later.

When the military took over in 2013, Obama decided not to call the takeover a coup, and thus be required by US law to suspend aid. However, he did halt deliveries of jet fighters and attack helicopters, as well as $260 million in aid. Washington also canceled the biennial “Bright Star” maneuvers between the two countries.

Uncowed, new Egyptian leader Sissi led a blistering and deadly crackdown on dissent, even against citizens of Western allies, and began reducing the country’s dependency on the US.

Donald Trump’s administration prioritized regional security, though it did suspend military aid and reduce economic assistance in 2017, largely in response to Congressional pressure. Trump jokingly called his Egyptian counterpart “my favorite dictator” at the 2019 G7, but the quip describes accurately the US approach over the last four years as Trump went out of his way to publicly........

© The Times of Israel

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