Nov 3, 2021 - World

A cigarette break with Egypt's spy chief

Abbas Kamel. Photo: Khaled Desouki/AFP via Getty

GLASGOW, Scotland — Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel tells Axios Egypt is trying to reach a deal to stabilize the ceasefire in the Gaza Strip, allow humanitarian relief and reconstruction, and include a prisoner swap between Israel and Hamas.

How it happened: I had a short conversation with Kamel, who rarely speaks publicly, on the sidelines of the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow while we both stepped outside the conference hall to smoke a cigarette.

This was a very unusual encounter with a man who is not only the director of intelligence but also President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's right-hand man.

  • My colleague Nadav Eyal and I introduced ourselves right away as Israeli reporters, but Kamel was still willing to engage.

What he's saying: Kamel expressed satisfaction with the state of Egyptian-Israeli relations and said Sisi’s mid-September meeting with Bennett in Sharm el-Sheikh had been exceptionally good.

  • The spy chief said Bennett is a big change from his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, with whom Sisi also had a close relationship.
  • Kamel stressed that although the current Israeli government consists of several parties with diverging views, the Egyptians hope it remains stable and believe they can work with it effectively.

Kamel said Egypt speaks every day to Israel and the Palestinians on several issues, including a potential long-term ceasefire deal in Gaza.

  • Such a deal would include a prisoner exchange between Israel and Hamas — something Egypt is working toward "day and night."
  • Kamel said such a deal should start with the release of elderly Palestinian prisoners and of Palestinian women and teenagers who are in Israeli prisons. It would also have to address the return of the bodies of two Israeli soldiers and the release of two Israeli civilians held by Hamas in Gaza.
  • A Gaza deal would also involve further economic and humanitarian steps for the civilian population and some kind of a return of the Palestinian Authority to Gaza, even if just symbolic, Kamel said.

What to watch: Kamel said Egypt wants to see the new Israeli government and the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah start some kind of political dialogue.

  • “We can start in lower-level talks and move slowly up, but we need to start," he said.

What’s next: Kamel said he will visit Israel later this month for talks with Bennett and other senior officials. This will be his second visit since the new Israeli government assumed office.

  • He'll likely also visit Ramallah for talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
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