JERUSALEM — Are the Israelis and Palestinians getting ready to return to peace talks? Take a very deep breath and hold it.
The decades-long stalemate is being nudged forward.
The latest player is Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, who sent his foreign minister to Jerusalem on Sunday afternoon.
On the sidelines — at least for now — is U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry and the White House, which has essentially given up trying to broker a deal in the remaining months of the Obama presidency. Kerry has encouraged Sissi’s outreach.
The Egyptian emissary, Sameh Shoukry, met not once but twice with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday, first at a broad bilateral meeting and later for an intimate dinner at the official residence, where the two men watched some minutes of European Championship soccer together, according to photographs released by Israel’s Government Press Office.
Shoukry’s trip to Israel was the first by an Egyptian foreign minister in nine years — itself a feat in today’s Middle East.
Israeli diplomats say it was a big deal because the meetings took place in broad daylight as part of an official visit with official statements.
“After the United States, Egypt is the more plausible player to take on the role of shuttle diplomacy between the Israelis and Palestinians,” said Itzhak Levanon, a former Israeli ambassador to Egypt.
Ten days ago, Shoukry went to Ramallah, in the West Bank, to huddle more quietly with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who is running out of ways to confront Israel’s almost 50-year occupation and finds himself more unpopular than ever among his people, according to recent public-
Palestinian and Israeli diplomats say Sissi is interested in getting the two sides to produce “confidence-building” measures that could de-escalate the conflict, which has been rubbed raw by 10 months of “lone wolf” knife, gun and vehicular attacks by Palestinian youths against Israeli soldiers and civilians and by tough Israeli responses, including “mistakes” in which Israeli forces shot up cars filled with innocents.
Confidence-building measures may include Israel freezing construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank or Palestinians muzzling incitement to martyrdom.
The Egyptian foreign minister echoed world sentiment.
“Ever since the cessation of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians in 2014, the situation on the ground has been in constant deterioration on the humanitarian, economic and security levels,” Shoukry said. “The dream of peace and security moves further out of reach as long as the conflict continues.”
Since the 2013 military coup and popular uprising that brought Sissi to power, Israeli army commanders have been telling journalists that military-to-military cooperation has never been better between the two armies and their intelligence services.
The two countries face a common enemy in Islamist extremism on the Sinai Peninsula, where anti-Cairo tribes have pledged loyalty to the Islamic State and declared themselves a province of the militants’ so-called caliphate.
Where the Egyptian bid will go is anyone’s guess.
It is possible that for both sides, the outreach is more about Israel-Egypt relations than the Palestinian cause.
Israel is facing a restive European Union, which is backing a French initiative that seeks to outline a future peace deal by year’s end that would probably include a call for the withdrawal of Israeli troops and the creation of a Palestinian state. There are also rumblings that the U.N. Security Council might again hear resolutions about the conflict.
Netanyahu, leading one of the most right-wing governments in Israeli history, said that he opposes the French gambit and other international efforts, such as parallel moves in the United Nations. The prime minister said that only “direct bilateral talks without preconditions” can produce a lasting peace.
The Palestinians are suspicious. They point to Netanyahu’s famous pledge, on the eve of his historic election to a fourth term as prime minister, that there would never be a Palestinian state on his watch.
“The Israelis are doing their best to prove there’s no need for the French initiative,” which is endorsed by Abbas, said a Palestinian diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of discussions.
The analysts are wary but watchful.
The al-Mesryoon newspaper in Cairo quoted one academic’s decrying of Egypt’s bid — “another nail in the coffin of the Arabs” — and another calling Sissi’s outreach “a positive step in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.”
Mira Tzoreff, a senior lecturer in Middle East and African history at Tel Aviv University, cautioned, “This is not an Israeli-Palestinian issue. It is an Israeli-Egyptian-Palestinian issue.”
She said Egypt is a unique player. “There might be a French initiative, or a Saudi one, but only Egypt is accepted by both,” Tzoreff said. “This is a clear message to the Americans that Sissi is a leader who can do something not only inside Egypt but also outside. Sissi is succeeding where the United States has failed.”
Whatever happens, Sissi has inserted himself into the conversation. In a May speech, the Egyptian leader called on Israel’s warring political parties to create a coalition for a peace deal with the Palestinians, which in turn would be backed by the Arab states.
In the middle of this is former British prime minister Tony Blair, who serves as an informal adviser to Sissi. Blair, facing public outrage at home for his decision to wage war in Iraq, continues to be a bit player in the Middle East dramas. On Monday, Blair arrived in Jerusalem to meet with Netanyahu.
Levanon, the former Israeli ambassador to Egypt, said: “The Egyptians see we have a Middle East that is falling apart, in bloodshed and crisis, with no solution on the horizon, not for Syria, Yemen, Libya and Iraq. They have to deal with terrorists internally, too, and suddenly they see something that was not there a few years ago — the small country of Israel has been building excellent relations with Russia, it has open channels with the Saudis and reconciled with Turkey, and last week met with the heads of seven African states.”
He said, “We are in a situation now where it is better for Egypt to be on Israel’s side than not.”
Heba Habib in Cairo contributed to this report.