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(photo credit: AP)
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman met with Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman in Jerusalem on Wednesday night, despite declarations from Lieberman's Egyptian counterpart earlier this month that Cairo would not deal with him, nor would he be welcome in the Arab nation, until his attitude changed.
Lieberman held "an important and constructive meeting" with Suleiman "in a friendly atmosphere," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Suleiman invited Lieberman to visit Cairo, according to Israel Radio.
During the meeting, the foreign minister "expressed his respect and appreciation for Egypt's leading role in the region and his personal respect for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Minister Suleiman."
Israel and Egypt will continue their vital cooperation to ensure stability, security and peace in the Middle East, the statement said.
Amid a charged atmosphere, Suleiman also met on Wednesday with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak to discuss a range of high-profile security, strategic and diplomatic issues. It was the first high-level meeting between the two countries since Netanyahu's government was sworn in last month.
Officials in Jerusalem said the Suleiman-Lieberman meeting, which was only confirmed after it happened due to its sensitivity, demonstrated the regional powerhouse's commitment to maintaining good relations with Israel.
Last week, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit told Russia Today TV that they would deal with the new Israeli government but not via Lieberman. He also said Lieberman "will not visit Cairo. He will certainly not visit as long as his positions remain as they are." A person must be
aware that what he says has consequences, he said.
Gheit added that he "cannot imagine Lieberman setting foot on Egyptian soil as long as his positions remain as they are."
He was responding to a question about Lieberman's past comments concerning Egypt as well as his statement that Israel was not bound by the Annapolis commitments, a US-backed plan for Palestinian statehood.
The Israel Beiteinu leader angered Cairo by criticizing Mubarak for never visiting Israel, except for prime minister Yitzhak Rabin's funeral in 1995, saying last October that he could "go to hell." He also once said Israel could attack the Aswan Dam in the event of war with Egypt.
Barak met with Suleiman on Wednesday afternoon and discussed regional issues - including the situation in the Gaza Strip, the negotiations to free St.-Sgt. Gilad Schalit, and the Hizbullah terrorist cell that was recently uncovered in Egypt.
Barak supported instituting an official cease-fire with Hamas in Gaza, officials said. Suleiman was instrumental in obtaining the last cease-fire that expired ahead of Operation Cast Lead.
Suleiman invited Barak, on behalf of Mubarak, to visit Cairo. Barak accepted the offer and said he planned to visit Egypt after Netanyahu.
"The relations between Egypt and Israel are of strategic importance," Barak said. "Israel sees Egypt as an important player in regional processes, arrangements, and in cooperation that can lead to regional stability."
Suleiman then met with Netanyahu, and also extended an invitation to him to visit Cairo on behalf of Mubarak. "The hope is that we will be able to make that visit in the coming weeks," spokesman Mark Regev said.
Regev described the meeting between the two, which took place at the Prime Minister's Office in the capital and lasted nearly two hours, as "good and productive."
Suleiman and Netanyahu discussed a series of issues, including "first and foremost" the bilateral relationship between the countries, the peace process, the fight against terrorism and extremism, the situation in Gaza and Schalit, Regev said. Part of the meeting was also attended by Mossad chief Meir Dagan and National Security Council head Uzi Arad.
For Egypt, Suleiman's meetings were an opportunity to see where Israel stands on the peace process and the Gaza Strip, which has been relatively quiet since Israel's Operation Cast Lead in January.
"It's important to explore what the Israeli side is thinking about during this initial phase, in terms of the relationship with the Palestinians, the cease-fire, [and] many issues," Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki told The Jerusalem Post.
Egypt has "never abandoned its efforts to reach a cease-fire," but it was premature to tell whether the new Israeli government was ready to renew an agreement with Hamas, Zaki said before Suleiman's meetings.
"First one has to know what is in their cards," he said.
There was currently "a de facto cease-fire" between Israel and Hamas, because neither side wanted to escalate the situation, Zaki said.
"They want to maintain it as is without reaching a deal," he said. "I'm not saying we are happy [about that]. I'm not saying either party is happy. This is the way it has been done. It has been this way because of Israel's position" until now, he said.
Egypt is particularly concerned with the continuation of the blockade on the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and the humanitarian situation there.
"The humanitarian situation is precarious," he said. "Something has to be done, such as opening the crossings, lifting the blockade, letting normal items go in, food, medicine, fuel, everything."
"Each side knows what it takes to reach a cease-fire. They were about to do that in mid-February, when the whole thing broke down because the Israeli side tied reaching a cease-fire with the issue of prisoner exchange. This has complicated the whole thing," he said.
Zaki declined to comment on the Lieberman issue.
The Egyptian government has expressed reservations about Netanyahu, saying they were disappointed he had not made any reference to a future Palestinian state.
The new Israeli government "is not very much loved in Egypt or the rest of the Arab world and there is very little hope about it," said Abdel Monem Said Aly, director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.
"Despite all this, Egypt is sending a senior and very experienced official to meet with a new group of leaders in Israel."
Experts in Israel noted Suleiman was the closest person to Mubarak and that his visit "was a mission of trust" from the president.
"Now, there is a new government, with new people, and there are rumors in the Israeli press and no one knows exactly what Netanyahu thinks, where he's headed," said Zvi Mazel, a former ambassador to Egypt.
"It's very normal and natural to send his most trusted man to maybe present a message to Netanyahu and to listen to him and to continue [dealing] with all these problems. They are very heavy: the Hamas-Fatah dialogue, the truce, Gilad Schalit. It's very tough," he said.