Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid is scheduled to visit Egypt this week amid rising tensions with Gaza’s ruling Islamist terrorist organization Hamas.
Cairo has long played a prominent role as an intermediator between the Jewish state and Hamas. Following repeated hostilities between Hamas and Israel, Egypt has brokered several truces between the two parties, the latest following 11 days of war in May. Lapid has been advocating an economic recovery plan for Gaza in return for the cessation of rocket fire from Gaza into Israel.
Lapid and his Egyptian hosts are expected to discuss the issue of securing the release of an Israeli civilian hostage and Israeli soldiers’ remains held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Securing their release would likely be linked to the release of Hamas terrorists held in Israeli prisons. Adding more fuel to the rising tension in the region, Hamas recently accused Egypt of neglecting the Gaza Strip. Egypt’s ability to continue functioning as a mediator is therefore linked to restoring its credibility in the eyes of the Hamas regime.
Another important issue on the agenda is regional security cooperation between Cairo and Jerusalem, especially concerning the Iranian regional threat and the more local challenge of Islamist extremist groups operating in the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula bordering Israel.
While Lapid is expected to meet with the Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry in Cairo, there are speculations that Lapid might also meet with the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. The purpose of such a potential high-level meeting would be the return of Egyptian artifacts that were reportedly illegally smuggled from Egypt into Israel, according to Israeli Channel 12. The outlet reported that the Israel Antiques Authority preserved and maintained the ancient Egyptian artifacts.
Egypt became the first Arab state to sign a peace agreement with the Jewish state in 1979. While the Egyptian-Israeli peace has been an important cornerstone for Middle Eastern stability, Cairo preferred for decades to maintain cool relations with Jerusalem.
However, in recent years Egyptian-Israeli relations have improved significantly. In September, Sisi welcomed Israel’s new Prime Minister Naftali Bennett for their first public meeting in the Egyptian resort Sharm el-Sheikh. Bennett’s visit to Egypt was the first visit by an Israeli prime minister to the neighboring country in a decade.
Meanwhile, Michael Steinhardt, the American philanthropist known for large donations to different Jewish and Israeli causes, has reportedly agreed to give up some 180 stolen ancient objects worth $70 million to their rightful owners. The precious artifacts were reportedly smuggled out of almost a dozen countries including Egypt, Israel, Greece, Syria and Turkey. In return for avoiding prosecution, Steinhardt who is an avid antiques collector will be banned for life from owning and acquiring antiques.
In a released statement, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance strongly criticized Steinhardt’s alleged criminal conduct.
“For decades, Michael Steinhardt displayed a rapacious appetite for plundered artifacts without concern for the legality of his actions, the legitimacy of the pieces he bought and sold, or the grievous cultural damage he wrought across the globe,” Vance stated.
By contrast, Steinhardt’s team of lawyers presented a far more sympathetic view of their client.
“Mr. Steinhardt is pleased that the District Attorney’s years-long investigation has concluded without any charges, and that items wrongfully taken by others will be returned to their native countries. Many of the dealers from whom Mr. Steinhardt bought these items made specific representations as to the dealers’ lawful title to the items, and to their alleged provenance,” read the statement from Steinhardt’s lawyers.
As the cradle of some of the world’s oldest civilizations, the Middle East has long been at the center of a lucrative illegal global trade of antiques, some of it conducted by the Lebanese Shiite terrorist organization Hezbollah to finance its terrorist activities in the region and beyond.