Behind the smiles

Why did Sisi go public with his close relationship to Netanyahu?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Egyptian President al-Sisi in New York.  (photo credit: AVI OHAYON - GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Egyptian President al-Sisi in New York.
(photo credit: AVI OHAYON - GPO)
When was the last time you saw a picture of an Egyptian president and Israeli prime minister roaring with laughter?
When was the last time you saw images of Egyptian and Israeli leaders at the highest levels in the same room at all?
If a picture is indeed worth a thousand words, this one reveals a great deal about the state of peace between Israel and Egypt, or at least the state of the relationship between our leaders.
Monday’s tete-a-tete between Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, held on the sidelines of the opening session of the UN General Assembly in Manhattan, was their first-ever publicly announced meeting, and it went better than both men had hoped.
But why was President Sisi willing to go public with the relationship now?
While the two leaders speak frequently by phone, they have met in person only twice before. The first time was in the Red Sea resort city of Aqaba, Jordan, in February 2016, hosted by Jordanian King Abdullah II. The second time was in Cairo in April 2016. But both of those meetings were tightly held secrets at the time, and no photos were released.
By contrast, Monday’s meeting was announced by both sides even before it took place. Afterwards, official photographs were released. What’s more, the photos showed the two men not simply shaking hands but sincerely enjoying each other’s company.
Clearly, the two have cultivated a relationship they believe is healthy and enduring enough to make public.
Senior Israeli and Egyptian officials tell me security cooperation between the two countries is unprecedentedly close. Israel recently returned its ambassador and diplomatic staff to Cairo. Both are positive developments.
And Sisi is signaling he is fully and courageously prepared to stand up against every Radical Islamist from the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaida and Islamic State to the ayatollahs of Iran. That alone is a positive and significant development.
But is something even bigger going on?
Sisi is not a politician by training. He’s a military man, a strategist. He doesn’t make moves – certainly not vis-à-vis Israel – without carefully thinking them through. To go public now, especially with such warm and friendly photographs, strongly suggests something else is brewing.
Is the Egyptian leader about to invite Netanyahu to come to Cairo for an official, formal state visit, the first ever by an Israeli premier? Might Sisi even host a summit and introduce Netanyahu to other Arab heads of state? Will he offer to host serious peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians for a comprehensive and final treaty, having secured Netanyahu’s agreement to such talks ahead of time?
At the same time, is Netanyahu about to invite Sisi to come to Jerusalem for an official state visit? Will he invite the Egyptian leader to address the Knesset and lay out his vision for a broad regional peace, sharing lessons Egypt has learned about making – and maintaining – peace with the Jewish state?
It would be the first time an Egyptian leader set foot on Israeli soil since Anwar Sadat stunned the world and melted the hearts of the Israeli people with his bold visit to Jerusalem in 1977. It would be powerful by itself, but could it also be designed to lay the groundwork for an historic visit by another major Arab leader, or by several?
Significantly, Monday’s meeting came on the 39th anniversary of the Camp David peace talks. From September 5 through 17, 1978, Sadat met with prime minister Menachem Begin at the presidential retreat center near Thurmont, Maryland, hosted by US president Jimmy Carter. Together, the three men – a Muslim, a Jew and a born-again Christian – hammered out the first-ever peace treaty between Israel and an Arab country.
Could another breakthrough be in the works?
As I wrote in The Jerusalem Post earlier this year following a meeting with President Sisi in Washington, “What has intrigued me as I have studied Sisi is how much he admires the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, even though Sadat was assassinated for visiting Jerusalem and agreeing to the 1979 Camp David Accords.”
Indeed, “as the leader of the first Arab nation ever to sign a peace treaty with Israel, President Sisi believes Egypt offers a model that can help lead the region to peace with the Jewish state.”
Will the Saudis follow Egypt’s lead? Will the Gulf States? Will Morocco and the rest of North Africa? And ultimately, will the Palestinians?
Is Netanyahu prepared to follow the path blazed by his mentor Begin? Can he be persuaded – and in turn persuade his coalition – to forge sweeping peace agreements with the broader Arab community, as well as with the Palestinians?
Time will tell, but Monday was an encouraging day.
The author is a New York Times best-selling author. He has written three novels about the threat of Islamic State, The Third Target (2015), The First Hostage (2016), and Without Warning, which was published in March. He can be reached at