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Ten implications behind the Egyptian minister's visit to Israel

Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz (R), Greece's Energy Minister Kostis Hatzidakis (2nd-R), Egyptian Minister of Petroleum Tarek el-Molla (2nd-L) and Cypriot Energy Minister Yiorgos Lakkotrypis (L) attend the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), in Cairo, on 16 January 2020. [KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images]
Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz (R), Greece's Energy Minister Kostis Hatzidakis (2nd-R), Egyptian Minister of Petroleum Tarek el-Molla (2nd-L) and Cypriot Energy Minister Yiorgos Lakkotrypis (L) attend the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), in Cairo, on 16 January 2020. [KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images]

The visit of Egyptian Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources Tarek El-Molla to Israel carried many political and economic implications. The visit resulted in the signing of an agreement between the occupation and Cairo to link the Leviathan gas field with the Egyptian liquefied natural gas facilities via an underwater pipeline, from which gas can be exported to European markets.

Israeli circles familiar with El-Molla's visit confirmed that he is far from a secondary player in Egyptian politics, but rather a very close personality to President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. El-Molla has been referred to as one of the most prominent Egyptian ministers. Therefore, his visit bore many political indications, which are no less important than the announced purpose of the visit – to discuss mutual energy and gas files.

The first signification lies in the fact that El-Molla's visit to the occupation state constitutes the first public and open visit of an Egyptian minister to Israel since Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry's visit in July 2016. Thus, the Israeli observers pinpointed an important political signal, which is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's decision to meet with the Egyptian minister in occupied Jerusalem, as if this move would carry the Egyptian recognition that the city is the actual capital of the Israeli state.

The second indication is that El-Molla arrived by bus. He came accompanied by a delegation of eight Egyptian officials in the fields of gas and energy. He met with Netanyahu, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat and Israeli Ambassador to Cairo Amira Oron.

READ: Gaza, Egypt deal sparks dispute in Palestine 

The third signifier centres on the visit's agenda that included a field tour of the gas platform and a discussion between El-Molla and his Israeli counterpart on ways to promote the regional gas forum (in which Greece and Cyprus also participated), bearing in mind that the Egyptian minister's visit came after two similar visits by the leaders of Greece and Cyprus. It is as if the three countries, along with Israel, wanted to show that the regional allies are united and working in coordination with one another when dealing with friends and enemies alike, which may indicate that they also wanted to send a message to the US.

A fourth political indication was put forward by Netanyahu when he welcomed the Egyptian minister and sent his greetings to his "friend" El-Sisi, considering that: "The visit is an important event that symbolises the continued cooperation between Cairo and Tel Aviv in the field of energy and many other issues. This is a new era of peace and prosperity in the region with the conclusion of the Abraham Accords, for the sake of improving the economic situation of all the populations of the region, and we believe that this is a great opportunity for regional cooperation between Egypt, Israel and other countries."

The fifth signal relates to Egyptian-US relations and the Israeli role within, as Israeli circles believe that El-Molla's visit is linked to the Egyptian regime's concern over a less than favourable start with US President Joe Biden's administration, while intending to re-engage in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In other words, Egypt wants to send a positive signal to the White House regarding Cairo's partnership with Israel.

Egyptian Minister of Petroleum Tarek el-Molla attends the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), in Cairo, on 16 January 2020. [KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images]

Egyptian Minister of Petroleum Tarek el-Molla attends the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), in Cairo, on 16 January 2020. [KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images]

The Israelis say that El-Sisi's relations with Biden have been part of the agenda of El-Molla's visit to Israel and his meetings with Israeli leaders. This belief stems from the US president's strong criticism of Egypt during his election campaign, especially concerning human rights violations, leading the Egyptians to believe that their close relationship with the US administration during the Trump era will not sustain during Biden's mandate. Hence, the authorities in Cairo thought that reasserting their role in mediating between Israel and the Palestinians may ease the tension with the new administration in Washington, and El-Sisi has already started pushing in this direction.

The sixth indicator hinges on the timing of the visit. El-Molla arrived in Israel amid a recent revival of relations between Egypt and Israel, following the visit of Head of Egyptian intelligence Abbas Kamel (the closest official to El-Sisi) to Israel, where he met with senior officials in the prime minister's office, where they discussed Netanyahu's visit to Egypt. Thus, Kamel reiterated El-Sisi's request, but Netanyahu still hopes to conduct the visit amid efforts that are being made to find a compromise formula enabling this step.

Another noteworthy aspect of the visit's timing is that El-Molla's presence in Israel coincided with the start of the election countdown, making Netanyahu look forward to a photo opportunity with El-Sisi to give his election campaign a boost. However, the last time that Netanyahu visited Egypt officially and publicly was a decade ago, when former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was still in office, and the visits were restricted to Sharm El-Sheikh, not the capital. Since then, Netanyahu has visited Egypt several times, covertly.

The same Israeli sources mentioned that Netanyahu's visit to Egypt was set to take place a month ago, but El-Sisi was not in favour of receiving Netanyahu in the wake of the early Israeli elections scheduled for March; therefore, it was postponed. Thus, when talks of the visit resumed, the Egyptians asked Netanyahu to pledge a new commitment on the Palestinian issue.

READ: Why did Hamas make concessions in the Cairo talks? 

The eighth sign refers to the regional dimension present in El-Molla's talks with the Israeli ministers, as Cairo has been concerned about the Emirates-Israel plan to pump oil from Eilat on the Red Sea coast to the port of Ashkelon on the Mediterranean coast. The regime, however, refrained from publicly criticising the project due to its good relations with Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv, despite the fact that any development on the occupied Palestinian coast will have a direct impact on Egyptian security.

In a related context, Israeli circles revealed that one of the main purposes of El-Molla's meetings with Israeli officials, besides the discussions of energy issues, was to send a message to Turkey and its President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as relations between the two countries have lately been experiencing escalating tensions. Thus, tensions increased between Ankara and Cairo after Egypt decided to join Greece and Cyprus in their oil and military projects. In cooperation with Israel, the three countries established the Cairo-based EastMed Gas Forum and conducted joint military exercises. Certainly, El-Molla's meeting with Netanyahu and the rest of his ministers conveys a clear message to Turkey.

The ninth signification is linked to the current wave of normalisation in the Arab region. Israeli diplomatic circles mentioned that El-Molla confirmed the normalisation projects during his visit, as if Egypt sent a hidden message that it is working with Israel to ensure more normalisation agreements with the rest of the Arab countries, provided that Israel helps it maintain decent relations with the US.

The tenth substantial facet of the minister's visit to the occupation state can be deduced from Israel's talks about El-Molla's arrival in Ramallah to meet with Palestinian officials, allowing El-Sisi to promote his regime as a mediator between Israel and the Palestinians, pushing the two-state solution forward. Perhaps this visit is meant to complement Egypt's hosting of the foreign ministers of Jordan, France and Germany, to discuss ways to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, just a week before Biden's inauguration.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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