By Jeffrey Heller
JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Egypt’s foreign minister paid a rare visit to Israel on Sunday, offering Cairo’s help to revive peace talks with the Palestinians, in a sign of strengthened ties between two countries sharing deep concern over regional unrest.
Sameh Shoukry’s visit was the first made by an Egyptian foreign minister in nine years and he traveled to Jerusalem for two meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
As Netanyahu looked on, Shoukry said the vision of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “is not far-fetched” and he called for confidence-building measures that could lead to renewed peace negotiations that collapsed in 2014.
“It is no longer acceptable to claim that the status quo is the most that we can achieve of the hopes and aspirations of the Palestinian and Israeli peoples,” Shoukry said.
The current state of affairs, said the Egyptian diplomat, who held talks in the occupied West Bank on June 29 with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, “is neither stable nor sustainable”.
In May Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi urged both sides to seize the opportunity to make a historic peace, offering Israel the prospect of warmer ties if this were achieved.
Sisi offered the 2002 Arab peace initiative as a potential way ahead. The initiative offered full recognition of Israel but only if it gave up all land seized in the 1967 Middle East war and agreed to a “just solution” for Palestinian refugees.
Shoukry said Egypt was offering “all possible forms of support” to achieve peace and security in the Middle East.
“A multitude of ideas and initiatives have been proposed to make it a practical reality – particularly the Arab peace initiative,” he said. “However, achieving this vision requires serious steps to build confidence, as well as a genuine will that does not waver or wane under any circumstance.”
Netanyahu has said he would be willing to discuss the Arab peace plan but that changes would have to be made.
Greeting Shoukry on Sunday, Netanyahu repeated his call for Palestinians to resume direct negotiations with Israel, and welcomed Egypt’s efforts to resolve that conflict and achieve “a broader peace in our region”.
Egypt was the first of a handful of Arab countries to recognize Israel with a U.S.-sponsored peace accord in 1979, but Egyptians’ attitudes to their neighbor remain icy.
However, cooperation between the two governments has strengthened under Sisi, with Egypt facing Islamist insurgents in Sinai near its eastern neighbor’s border and both countries wary of Gaza’s Hamas Islamist rulers.
“The situation of the Middle East is 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,” Shoukry said.
In a report published on July 1, the Quartet of Middle East peace sponsors – the United States, European Union, Russia and United Nations – hailed the Arab peace initiative’s “vision for comprehensive settlement” of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Shoukry’s visit comes as France leads a renewed push to put peace efforts back on the agenda with an international peace conference held on June 3. The French initiative seeks to bring the two sides back to the table by year-end and was welcomed by the Palestinians.
But Israeli officials have said only direct talks can end the decades-old conflict.
(Story refiles to modify headline.)
(Additional reporting by Lin Noueihed in Cairo and Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Editing by Greg Mahlich)