Cairo, April 24 – Egypt denied on Thursday that it had invited ultranationalist Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman for talks, a sign that hawkish remarks he has made in the past may still be weighing on ties.
An Israeli political source had said that Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman had extended an invitation to Lieberman during a 30-minute meeting on Wednesday in Israel.
“This news is devoid of truth, and the head of Egyptian intelligence extended an invitation only to the head of the Israeli government to come to Egypt at a time that will be agreed on shortly,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki said.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak also said on television that Lieberman would not accompany Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the visit, expected in May, but stopped short of saying he was unwelcome.
Lieberman heads the ultranationalist Yisrael Beitenu party and his appointment as the Jewish state’s top diplomat under a coalition pact with Netanyahu was an affront to Egypt, the first Arab state to make peace with Israel.
As a political newcomer, Lieberman suggested Egypt’s Aswan Dam might be bombed should it fight another war with Israel.
He also stirred controversy last year when, as an opposition lawmaker, he said Mubarak could “go to hell” if the Egyptian president did not visit Israel more often. Mubarak has gone to Israel once during 27 years of power, for the 1995 funeral of slain Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Israel’s foreign ministry has said that Wednesday’s meeting in Israel between Lieberman and Suleiman, a key mediator with Hamas, the Islamist Palestinian group that runs the Gaza Strip, had been “important and constructive”.
Mubarak, in comments marking the anniversary of the return of most of the Sinai peninsula to Egypt following a 1979 peace treaty with Israel, cited precedence as a reason why Lieberman would not be visiting Egypt alongside Netanyahu.
“Some have said the Israeli prime minister would be accompanied by the foreign minister. This did not happen before with previous prime ministers Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak. All of them came by themselves,” Mubarak said.
Israeli leaders regularly travel to Egypt. Netanyahu, who took power this month, is expected to travel soon as part of efforts to restart prisoner-exchange talks with Hamas, which has been holding an Israeli soldier captive for three years.
Egypt, like Israel, borders Gaza and has been involved in an Israeli-led blockade aimed at pressuring Hamas into softening its opposition to peace talks led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Cairo has also been trying to broker a rapprochement between Hamas and Abbas’s secular Fatah party.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said last week that Cairo would neither deal with Lieberman nor invite him to visit “as long as his positions remain unchanged”.
Zaki, from the foreign ministry, added that some people in Israel appeared to be trying to minimise Egypt’s objections to Lieberman’s positions.
“It was known that some in Israel would try to raise doubts about Egypt’s view toward the positions of the Israeli foreign minister,” he said in remarks published by the state news agency MENA.