JERUSALEM (AP) — Egypt's foreign minister paid a rare visit to Israel on Sunday, saying that his country remains a "steadfast and unwavering" supporter of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians but warning that conditions for achieving that are deteriorating.
Sameh Shoukry's trip was the first official visit to Israel since 2007 and reflected the strong but low-profile ties that have developed between the two countries in recent years. The Egyptian Foreign Ministry said Shoukry's visit was aimed at reviving the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Peace efforts have made no headway since Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took office in 2009. The last round of U.S.-led talks broke down two years ago after the sides could not agree on the contours of a future peace deal.
The Palestinians seek the establishment of an independent state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip — lands captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war. Netanyahu has endorsed the idea of an independent Palestinian state, but he opposes a return to Israel's pre-1967 borders and has continued to build Jewish settlements on occupied lands.
Speaking at a news conference with Netanyahu, Shoukry said "the vision of the two-state solution is not far-fetched" but rather required "steps to build confidence."
He warned that worsening conditions for Palestinians threatened to undermine prospects for peace. "The plight of the Palestinian people becomes more arduous every day," Shoukry said. "And the dream of peace and security moves further out of the Israeli people's reach as long as the conflict continues."
After decades of wars followed by a cold peace, Israel has emerged as a discreet ally to Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. In particular, the two sides share intelligence in a common battle against Islamic militants operating in Egypt's Sinai desert and the Gaza Strip.
El-Sissi recently made a high-profile speech calling for a resumption of efforts to bring peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
"My visit to Israel today is a continuation of Egypt's longstanding sense of responsibility towards peace for itself and all the peoples of the region, particularly the Palestinian and Israeli peoples, who have suffered many decades due to the perpetuation of the conflict between them," Shoukry said.
A senior Palestinian official said el-Sissi has been trying to arrange a meeting between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Netanyahu. The Palestinians have been resisting because the Egyptians have not set any parameters for the meeting, and because Netanyahu continues to build settlements, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was discussing a confidential diplomatic issue.
An Israeli government official said Netanyahu asked Shoukry for Egypt's help in releasing Israelis who are held captive or who went missing in the Gaza Strip, apparently referring to the remains of two Israeli soldiers killed in the 2014 Gaza war which are believed to be held by Hamas. An Israeli of Ethiopian descent and a Bedouin from Israel's Arab minority are also believed to be held in Gaza. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the meeting. He said Shoukry "answered in the affirmative."
Egypt and Jordan are the only Middle Eastern countries to make peace with Israel.
In a press conference with Shoukry, Netanyahu called on the Palestinians "to follow the courageous example of Egypt and Jordan and join us for direct negotiations."
Shoukry visited Abbas in the West Bank last month.