Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (R) meets with US Secretary of State John Kerry at the presidential palace in Cairo on May 18, 2016
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (R) meets with US Secretary of State John Kerry at the presidential palace in Cairo on May 18, 2016 © Amr Nabil - POOL/AFP
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (R) meets with US Secretary of State John Kerry at the presidential palace in Cairo on May 18, 2016
Dave Clark
Last updated: May 19, 2016

Kerry meets Sisi as Egypt seeks Middle East peace role

Banner Icon US Secretary of State John Kerry met in Cairo on Wednesday with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, after Egypt called for a renewal of the Middle East peace process.

Even before Sisi raised the issue, Kerry had planned a visit to discuss the Libya and Syria crises and to raise concerns about Egypt's harsh crackdown on dissent, issues the top US diplomat's office said were discussed in the meeting.

But Kerry was also keen to hear more from the Egyptian leader about how he intends to help broker peace between his Israeli and Palestinian neighbours.

"He's interested in hearing a bit more directly from the president about what role he has in mind," a senior US official told reporters before the talks, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"The Secretary expressed his appreciation for the president's recent statement of strong support for advancing Arab-Israeli peace," State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner said afterwards, without providing details.

On Tuesday, in a televised speech, Sisi urged Israelis and Palestinians to seize what he said was a "real opportunity" and hailed his own country's peace deal with Israel.

Sisi urged Israeli parties and leaders to "please, reach an agreement so a solution can be found" and called for "a real reconciliation, and quickly" between Palestinian factions, offering Cairo's full support.

Arab League deputy secretary general Ahmed Ben Helli on Wednesday welcomed Sisi's offer to mediate between Palestinian factions for a speedy reconciliation to pave the way to revive the peace process.

In 1979, Egypt was the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel after years of conflict, and today it remains an influential player in the region.

Washington believes the only way to end the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is a negotiated settlement resulting in two states side-by-side within recognised borders.

Frustrations at US approach

But the US does not believe the time is yet ripe to resume direct dialogue, preferring instead to lobby both to make confidence-building measures to reduce violence and calm tensions.

Some in the international community are becoming frustrated with that approach, and France -- and now Egypt -- are pushing for a quicker resumption of efforts to seek a final deal.

There is sympathy for that goal in Washington, and an acceptance that there is a risk that the process could become unsalvageable if it is allowed to fester, but there is also caution about pushing too fast.

"We've said repeatedly that we believe negotiations are the only way to solve the problem. We've also said that we're not ourselves trying to resume negotiations at this point," the US official said.

"The secretary is very interested in hearing some more about the details of what President Sisi has in mind."

Supporters of the peace process have been dismayed in recent months by Israel's ongoing construction of settlements on Palestinian land and by Palestinian knife and gun attacks on Israelis.

Both these actions stir anger and boost support for hardliners on both sides of the dispute, making an eventual negotiated deal harder to imagine.

"I think we've also made very clear our concerns about some of the steps that have been taken on the ground that call into question the viability of a two-state solution," the US official said.

"That will also be part of our discussion here."

Kerry spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by telephone on Monday and to Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas earlier in the week.

After meeting Sisi on Wednesday, Kerry left for a NATO meeting in Brussels.

There have been persistent but unconfirmed reports in Washington that US President Barack Obama is considering making a major speech to emphasise and better define US support for the two-state solution.

But with barely eight months left in office, even if he decides to act, Obama has little time and space to tackle a challenge that frustrated so many of his predecessors.

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