Wednesday, March 25, 2009

EGYPT & ISRAEL

30 years at peace


There was something melancholy about our story this week that Egyptian Ambassador to Israel Yasser Reda would be marking the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations between our countries by not boycotting a Jerusalem conference and reception today. This wasn't the way Israelis imagined peace would look three decades after president Anwar Sadat's historic journey to Jerusalem.\

Egypt's Foreign Ministry marked the lead-up to the anniversary with a
strong condemnation of Israel's refusal to allow the Palestinian Authority to conduct a "cultural festival" within Jerusalem's municipal boundaries - including a march on the Temple Mount, complete with PLO flags. The PA knows that Israeli law prohibits it from operating in Jerusalem, which is precisely why it organized the illegal demonstration - to hammer home its claims of sovereignty.

Regrettably Egypt used this PA provocation to denounce Israel's "continuous efforts to judaize Jerusalem," warning that Israel won't be able to "suppress" Palestinian demands for a capital in east Jerusalem. Curiously, Cairo did not reference Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's reported plan to hand over the Arab neighborhoods of the city to a future "Palestine," nor PA President Mahmoud Abbas's rejection of the offer as insufficient.

Israel's Foreign Ministry, in contrast, marked the anniversary by issuing a warm statement recalling Sadat's visit and his Knesset address. It highlighted the various spheres of Egyptian-Israeli cooperation and noted that bilateral trade climbed to $271 million in 2008.

CLEARLY, Israelis and Egyptians think differently about how the relationship should be anchored. Somewhat naively, perhaps, Israelis would have it grounded in how the two states relate to each other, while Egyptians - starting with Sadat - have made it abundantly clear that the depth and scope of ties are contingent on Israel's standing in the Arab world, and particularly on its relationship with the Palestinians.

And yet, paradoxically, Egypt has been ambivalent about Israel integrating too well into the region, according to Dr. Ehud Eilam of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. Other observers note that Egypt has more often undermined than fostered Israel's quest for improved relations with the Palestinians, Jordanians and Gulf Arabs. Egyptian diplomats have also worked to isolate Israel in Europe.

The good news, says Eilam, is that the relationship has survived a series of crises - from Israel's annexation of the Golan Heights and the preemptive attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor, through several Lebanon conflicts, two intifadas and the latest Gaza fighting.

"The main achievement of the treaty," he says, "is the survival of the treaty itself - and that our rivalry does not play out on the battlefield."

Former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir put it this way in his memoirs: "That which moved Sadat, which fired him and induced him to risk not only his life but also Egypt's standing in the Arab world, that promise of 'no more war,' the words he repeated so often in the brief remainder of his life - that has survived; and so his efforts were not in vain, not for Israel and certainly not for Egypt."

Amen.

WE HESITATE to speculate on where the Egypt-Israel relationship will be 30 years from now. Israelis will watch how President Hosni Mubarak prepares for a smooth transition in 2011, when he will presumably retire. Egypt's domestic stability is one of Israel's most important strategic concerns. Much also depends on institution-building and political development in Egypt and among the Palestinian Arabs.

Unfortunately, the Mubarak regime has been delinquent in socializing either the elites or masses to the idea that peace with Israel is anything more than a bitter necessity. Consequently, Egypt's political culture vilifies Israel. A sympathetic telling of our narrative (why we fought in Gaza, for instance) in the Egyptian media is practically unheard of. No wonder, then, that 92 percent of Egyptians say Israel is their enemy.

The cold peace calibrated by Mubarak has been tolerable, if disappointing. But the notion that a successor regime which "knew not Sadat" might one day field Egypt's colossal and lavishly modernized military against the Jewish state cannot be ruled out.

For an enduring peace, it is imperative, therefore, that Mubarak use the remaining years of his tenure to reconceptualize and rebrand Egypt's attitude toward Israel. A first state visit would be a good starting point.

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