Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Egyptian President al-Sisi in New York.
(photo credit: AVI OHAYON - GPO)
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s willingness to meet publicly with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has elicited a variety of reactions. Many of the media outlets in Muslim countries purposely ignored or downplayed the importance of the first public powwow between the two men since Sisi took office. Other outlets attacked Sisi.
In the West, pundits presented Sisi as courageous for braving the inevitable criticism or scorn that he would endure for daring to meet with Israel’s leader openly. It is being interpreted as a sign that Sisi feels secure as head of Egypt and is not concerned that the pictures of him shaking hands with Netanyahu and smiling to the cameras will hurt him at home.
The fact that the two men met on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York is a positive development. That the meeting was caught on camera and widely publicized adds to the impact.
But that an innocuous meeting of two Middle East leaders with many shared interests elicits so much media buzz and speculation is an unfortunate sign that anything approaching normalization, even between Israel and a “moderate” Sunni state, is still unfathomable for many. This is an astounding realization considering that it has been nearly 40 years since Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat met in Jerusalem and set in motion a process that led to the signing of a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt that ended three decades of war.
It should be taken for granted that regular meetings occur between the leaders of two countries that share a border and face similar challenges. Israel and Egypt maintain extensive security coordination on the Sinai Peninsula. The two countries are concerned about the Islamist groups operating there and are working together to neutralize them. They are also concerned by the ties Hamas has with groups affiliated with Islamic State in Sinai. Both have an interest in preventing the movement of arms between Gaza and Sinai.
Israel and Egypt have a stake in the stability of the Gaza Strip, which is situated between the two countries. There is an Egyptian effort to bring about an internal Palestinian reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, with the goal of restoring the Palestinian Authority’s influence there. And Sisi undoubtedly discussed the implications of a reconciliation as well the dangers of incorporating members of Hamas in the Palestinian Authority.
Egypt and Israel also share an interest in preventing Iranian influence in the region, whether it be via proxies such as Hamas and Hezbollah or in areas of Syria that have remained under the control of Bashar Assad.
In short, there is much of common concern to Netanyahu and Sisi and it is only natural that they meet regularly and publicly.
The toxic atmosphere that surrounds any attempts at normalization between Israel and Egypt is largely the result of deep-seated perceptions in the Muslim world about Israel and Jews. Antisemitism and the vilification of Israel are rampant in Egypt. Wild conspiracy stories are widely believed. If Sisi wants to be able to meet with Netanyahu without being lambasted at home, he needs to take steps as the leader to change perceptions.
But Israel is not completely without blame. Netanyahu might be successful as a political survivor, but he also needs to provide vision and direction as a leader of the Jewish state. An honest attempt needs to be made to reengage with the Palestinians. Though Netanyahu had hoped during his meeting this week with US President Donald Trump that the Palestinian issue would not come up, Trump made it clear via Tweets and public statements that he still views the peace process as a prerequisite to improved relations between Israel and Muslim countries in the region. There are no short cuts. Improved relations with Egypt depend on the success of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
One day a public meeting between Israeli and Egyptian heads of state will be taken for granted. But before that happens both Netanyahu and Sisi have to fulfill their duties as leaders.