Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid’s visit to Egypt last week – the latest in a series of meetings between Israeli and Egyptian officials that have taken place in recent months – indicates a further deepening of ties and of mutual understanding between the two nations.
The high-level visits with Egypt underscore the importance both countries place on strategic ties and closely mirror the news Israeli government’s approach with its other neighbor, Jordan. Despite having normalized relations with Israel for decades, relations between the Jewish state and both Egypt and Jordan have been chilly in recent years.
Lapid met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry on his official visit to Cairo on Thursday. In November, head of the Egyptian intelligence service, Abbas Kamel, visited Israel while a delegation of senior IDF officers met with their Egyptian counterparts.
In September, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett visited Egypt, the first visit by an Israeli prime minister to Egypt in a decade and one that Abbas Kamel described as “exceptionally good.” These official visits reflect what has been a public secret for a long time, namely that Israel and Egypt regularly cooperate on issues of mutual interest, especially security and the threat of Islamist terrorism. In November, Abbas Kamel told Axios that, “Egypt speaks every day to Israel… on several issues, including a potential long-term ceasefire deal in Gaza.”
In a statement released before Thursday’s meeting, Lapid’s office said that the purpose of his visit “is a direct continuation of the Israeli government’s foreign policy to use common interests as leverage for regional stability.”
“From a political-security perspective the strengthening of Israel-Egypt relations is a very important interest for the State of Israel,” the statement said.
For Egypt, security cooperation with Israel has focused on two particularly challenging areas. In Northern Sinai, for more than a decade, Egypt has been dealing with a terrorist insurgency by a number of terrorist groups, including those affiliated with ISIS. Out of Egypt’s population of roughly 100 million inhabitants, only half a million live in the Sinai, primarily in the northern part of the peninsula. The population is predominantly Bedouin, but there are also Palestinians and other groups.
The terrorist groups have not only been targeting Egyptian security forces, but also the Israeli-Egyptian border and Israeli soldiers and civilians. Israel has for years been cooperating with Egypt on terrorist counter-measures to defeat the threat, although the details and extent of that cooperation remain largely unknown to the public.
Gaza, which is ruled by Hamas – a terrorist group affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood – presents a separate problem for Sisi. The Muslim Brotherhood is a sworn enemy of Sisi, both domestically and ideologically, and the Egyptian president has every interest in containing it so that its terrorist activities do not spill into Egypt, where they would create a host of problems. For that reason, Egypt regularly upholds the blockade of its border with Gaza. At the same time, however, Egypt frequently plays the role of mediator between Israel and Hamas.
During Thursday’s visit, Lapid mentioned his new “Economy for Security” plan for acquiring peace with Gaza – to offer economic benefits in return for an end to Hamas attacks on Israel and eventually disarmament. He also raised the issue of Israeli hostages, and soldiers’ remains, still held in Gaza.
Other topics that were raised during Lapid’s meeting with the Egyptian officials included Iran and its nuclear program, as well as the Iranians’ support of terrorist proxies in the region and the instability it causes.
“Egypt is an especially important strategic partner for Israel,” Lapid said in a statement released after the meeting. “My goal is to strengthen our security, diplomatic, and economic ties with Egypt. It is important to continue to work on the peace between the two nations. I thank President Sisi, whose contribution to the region and to the ties between us are of historic proportions, for the hospitality and for the warm and open meeting.”
According to the president’s spokesman, Bassam Rady, Sisi told Lapid that “Egypt will continue its efforts to achieve fair and comprehensive peace in the Middle East based on the two-state solution and international legitimacy resolutions. This should achieve security and stability and open horizons for cooperation and development for all peoples of the region.”
In addition, Lapid returned 95 antiquities smuggled from Egypt into Israel and later seized by Israeli authorities.