JERUSALEM, Apr 23 – Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has been invited to visit Egypt, officials said, despite unease in the Jewish state’s most important Arab ally about the firebrand nationalist.
The invitation was made during a visit to Jerusalem on Wednesday by Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, an Israeli foreign ministry official said, without saying when Lieberman’s trip would take place.
Suleiman also extended an invitation to Israel’s right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which is expected to take place in the next few weeks, the premier’s office announced on Wednesday.
The invitations appear to mark an improvement in relations which have been been on the slide since Lieberman was named foreign minister, with Egyptian counterpart Ahmed Abul Gheit pointedly saying he would not shake his hand.
Israel’s foreign ministry said Lieberman, whose hardline stance has raised concerns about the fate of peacemaking with the Palestinians, stressed "the leadership role of Egypt and its president" during an encounter with Suleiman.
"Israel and Egypt will continue their vital cooperation to ensure stability and peace in the Middle East," the ministry said in a statement.
Egypt, which signed a landmark peace deal with Israel in 1979, has an uneasy relationship with Lieberman, who said last year that Egyptian President Mubarak could "go to hell" if he continued to refuse to visit the Jewish state.
Wednesday’s visit by Suleiman, Egypt’s pointman in efforts to try to forge a lasting Gaza truce between Israel and the Islamist movement Hamas, was the first by such a high-level official since Netanyahu was sworn in on March 31.
Netanyahu’s refusal to publicly endorse the creation of a Palestinian state has raised fears that Israel’s new cabinet is on a collision course with the new US administration which has vowed to push ahead with the peace process.
Several Israeli leaders have visited Egypt since the two countries signed a peace treaty, the first between Israel and an Arab state, but Mubarak has never been on an official trip to the Jewish state.
Israel has gone out of its way to play down any tension with its Arab neighbour over the new foreign minister, whose cabinet role has raised concerns over the future of Middle East peacemaking.
Lieberman has branded an Arab peace initiative as "dangerous" because it requires Israel to allow the return of Palestinian refugees, and has refused to endorse the 2007 US-backed deal that revived negotiations with the Palestinians.
Netanyahu underlined "the common interests between Egypt and Israel, starting with peace," after his two-hour meeting with Suleiman.
The talks covered the fate of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit who was captured by Palestinian militants in Gaza in June 2006, and the situation in the Israeli-blockaded Palestinian territory which borders Egypt.
Suleiman has been mediating in efforts to arrange a prisoner exchange between Palestinian detainees and Shalit.
Egypt has played a crucial role in recent years in efforts to broker a number of ceasefires between the Jewish state and the Hamas rulers of Gaza.