Egypt foreign minister on rare Israel visit to revive peace talks

Cairo, Egypt Updated: Jul 10, 2016, 04:42 PM(IST)

Shoukry's trip to Israel comes after he visited the West Bank city of Ramallah on June 29. Photograph:( Getty )

In what is being termed as first such visit in nearly a decade, Egypt's foreign minister Sameh Shoukry met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday to revive peace efforts with the Palestinians. 

The trip came amid talk of renewing an Arab peace initiative and with Israel's military having recently saluted "unprecedented" intelligence cooperation with Egypt to combat the Islamic State (IS) group.

Speaking to journalists alongside Netanyahu before their meeting in Jerusalem, foreign minister Sameh Shoukry said it was a "crucial and challenging juncture for the Middle East".

Resolving the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict would have a "far-reaching and dramatic and positive impact on the overall conditions of the Middle East region," he said.

"Egypt remains ready to contribute toward achieving this goal," Shoukry asserted. 

Netanyahu urges Palestinians to engage in direct negotiations 

Netanyahu for his part welcomed Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's "recent offer of Egyptian leadership and efforts to advance peace with the Palestinians and a broader peace in our region."

He also called on Palestinians to engage in direct negotiations as he has repeatedly done in the past.

Palestinian leaders say years of talks with the Israelis have not ended the occupation and have instead pursued international diplomacy to promote their cause.

Shoukry also held discussions with Palestinian leaders during a visit to the West Bank city of Ramallah on June 29.

Sisi said in May that there was a "real opportunity" for an Israeli-Palestinian deal that could lead to warmer ties between his country and Israel. He urged both sides to seize what he said was a "real opportunity" and hailed Egypt's peace deal with Israel.

'Laying foundation' for talks

Egypt's foreign ministry said Shoukry and Netanyahu would discuss "laying the foundation and specifics of confidence-building between Palestinians and Israelis to create a supportive environment to resume direct negotiations between them with the aim of reaching a comprehensive and just solution."

Israeli public radio said the trip was also partly intended to prepare the groundwork for a possible visit by Netanyahu to Cairo, but officials have yet to comment on the report.

In 1979, Egypt was the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with neighbouring Israel after years of conflict, and it remains an influential player in the region.

Their ties have however been formally cold over Israel's policies towards the Palestinians, and relations further soured after the June 2012 election of the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi as Egyptian president.

After president Hosni Mubarak's ouster in the 2011 revolution, protesters stormed Israel's embassy in September that year amid clashes with police.

Morsi was ousted in July 2013 by then army chief Sisi, who was elected Egypt's president in 2014.

In June, representatives from 28 Arab and Western countries, the Arab League, European Union and the United Nations met in Paris to discuss ways to help advance peace efforts.

Israel strongly opposes that initiative, which is being promoted by France.

Netanyahu has, at the same time, spoken of reviving a long-dormant Arab peace initiative dating to 2002.

The proposal essentially calls for Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories and resolve the issue of refugees with the Palestinians, leading to the creation of a Palestinian state, in exchange for normalised relations with Arab countries.

'Existential threat' 

But some analysts have questioned whether Netanyahu's comments were a bid to fend off international critics over his appointment of hardline Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman and his opposition to the French plan.

He has said he would seek changes to the Arab proposal. The Arab League has said the terms cannot be changed.

There have been repeated warnings that Israeli settlement building and Palestinian attacks are eroding the possibility of a two-state solution, especially with peace efforts at a standstill since April 2014.

Violence since October has killed at least 214 Palestinians, 34 Israelis, two Americans, an Eritrean and a Sudanese.

Most of the Palestinians killed were carrying out knife, gun or car-ramming attacks, according to Israeli authorities.

Others were shot dead during protests and clashes, while some were killed by Israeli air strikes in the Gaza Strip.

Egypt and Israel have cooperated in other areas, particularly with jihadists in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula having pledged allegiance in November 2014 to the Islamic State group.

In April, the Israeli military's deputy chief of staff spoke of an "unprecedented level of cooperation" with Egypt, mainly regarding intelligence.

Shoukry said the situation in the Middle East was "becoming ever more volatile and dangerous, particularly as the phenomenon of terrorism continues to grow and proliferate, representing an existential threat to the peoples of the region and the world at large."

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