President Donald Trump, right, reaches to greet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after a joint news conference at the White House on Feb. 15. Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

What to expect from Trump’s Israel visit


President Donald Trump will be departing on Friday for his first foreign trip overseas with stops in Saudi Arabia, the Vatican, Israel and the West Bank. Daniel Kurtzer, former US Ambassador to Israel and Egypt, told Jewish Insider, “What Trump is trying to do is contrast his close closeness to Israel with that of Obama. Obama didn’t go for the first four years and Trump is going in the first four months.”

[This story originally appeared on jewishinsider.com]

The visit to Israel is part of a long term US strategic investment towards the process, noted Michael Koplow, policy director of the Israel Policy Forum. “Someone in the White House has learned the lesson from the last administration where it was clearly a mistake not to go to Israel early on. (They) realize that if you are going to get the Israelis to make concessions, it’s probably a good idea to actually go to Israel and show the Israelis some love.”

The White House’s showering of love towards Israel is concerning many in Jerusalem, explains Daniel Shapiro, former US Ambassador to Israel from 2011-2017. “When it comes to President Trump’s Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative, both sides are nervous about what this trip, and events beyond it, could produce. Trump is unpredictable, and his team is inexperienced in Middle East negotiations,” he told Jewish Insider.

While Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas may be uncomfortable abiding by Washington’s demands to cut stipends to terrorists’ families, he still likely appreciates the renewed attention. Abbas is “primarily looking at the revival of interest in the Palestinian issue and his own role as chairman of the PLO as an unexpected political bananza. What he is going to try and do is try to get maximal advantage particularly in terms of his own domestic political credibility,” explained Hussein Ibish, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “As long as the Palestinian issue has been resuscitated — almost brought back from the dead really by Trump —  and he’s standing next to Trump whether in the White House or Ramallah, and there is serious prospects for some benefits on-the-ground, his position which was otherwise very shaky politically becomes really unassailable.”

With Trump’s unpredictable nature and the threats of a Twitter war launched against Jerusalem and Ramallah, Kurtzner emphasized the willingness of both sides to please Trump. “They (Netanyahu and Abbas) are going to try and put on the best face they can: neither one wants the responsibility of failure to be on their doorstep,” he stated. At the same time, Shapiro emphasized the deep underlying challenges preventing any genuine breakthrough between the parties. “Neither Netanyahu or Abbas have any trust in the other, and both face severe domestic political constraints and gaps in their respective positions on the core issues,” he noted.  “So whether they agree to start talks under Trump’s sponsorship, or simply stall for time, they are very likely to fall back into deeply ingrained habits of preparing not for success, but for winning the blame game when failure comes.  That may be the biggest challenge facing Trump’s initiative.”

Yet, for all of the focus on how the trip will impact Israelis and Palestinians on-the-ground, Koplow suggests that the visit may have an additional purpose. “Going abroad and having a high-profile trip where you are seated by leaders in Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Vatican it looks good and certainly won’t escape anyone’s notice that it’s coming at a time when things at home are getting dicey and this won’t be the first President to go abroad and try to use good headlines and nice photos from overseas to push away some trouble he is having at home,” he said.

Moses


Do you dream of Egypt? Or seek traces
of your journey before God lays you down like Isaac
at Moriah and takes away your breathing?
Do you remember Sinai where you were sorely tried?
Or seek evidence that the lengthy sojourn
in Pharaoh’s court was not of your imagining?
Do you feel the sea tearing in half? Or remember
those who dared to flee into its breach?
Perhaps your feet still move in a desert rhythm
and will not stop even here on Mount Nebo
though you watch the others cross a river beyond you.
Haven’t you pleaded for your life? What have
you to say, Bush of Burning who is not consumed? Mountain
of the Stone Tablets? And you, Moses, do you lie back
upon your rocky bed, close your eyes and feel
the cool kiss of God upon your lips, your soul drawn
out of your body like a hair drawn out of milk,
sons dispersed like seeds, no burial place?


From “Lithuania: New & Selected Poems.” Myra Sklarew, professor emerita at American University, also is the author of “Harmless,” “If You Want to Live Forever” and the forthcoming “A Survivor Named Trauma: Holocaust and the Construction of Memory,” SUNY Press.

Photo from Pexels

My iPhone is my Egypt


What is your Egypt?

The people, the food and the storytelling are what I love most about the Passover seder I go to, but I also really like the updates to the ritual. We spill drops of wine as we name the ten Biblical plagues, but we count off ten modern plagues as well, like hunger and terrorism. Traditional symbols are on the table, like horseradish for the bitterness of slavery and salt water for tears, but there’s also an orange, an innovation from the 1970s, standing for feminism and against homophobia. (An orange? Seriously? There’s a story.)

I’m especially partial to this twist: We sing Avadim Hayinu, “Once were slaves in Egypt,” but we also ask the question I began with, as a metaphor, and in the present tense. The Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, is derived from m’tzarim, meaning “narrow straits,” a tight place. In the story the Book of Exodus tells, the enslaved Jews are liberated from Egypt. Our seder asks us, What pharaoh owns you? What tightness binds you? What constriction do you need to free yourself from?

I’m writing this before the first night of Passover, so this is a prediction, but a safe one: I’ll be amazed if there’s anyone at our seder who won’t have a little Egypt in their pocket or purse. Everyone will of course silence their ringers, but I’d be surprised if a few of us don’t manage to sneak a peek at our screens; if many of us won’t be fighting a compulsion to do that several times an hour; and if most of us, in the moments between seder and meal, don’t check out what came in while we were asking why this night is different from all other nights.

On all other nights, there are smartphones on the table.

I’ll admit it: I’m rarely without my iPhone, even for a few minutes (you know: in case of an emergency, or my kids are trying to reach me, or I don’t want the plumber to go to voicemail). Some studies say that on average, people check their phones every six-and-a-half minutes, 150 times a day; some say – yikes – as many as 2,617 times a day. Whatever my own number is, it’s bound to be embarrassing. Like most people, I can rattle off one reason after another to excuse that frequency. It’s for work. It’s for news. It’s for stoking my civic outrage at you know who. It’s for Yelp or Uber or Google or Netflix. It’s for weather, scores, maps, directions, texting, posting, liking, Skyping, tweeting, eating, friending, mating. It’s for playing games, taking pictures, getting a jump on my email, working out to my playlists, killing time while I’m riding an elevator, standing in line, waiting for the water to boil.

This is madness.

We’re as adept at justifying being phone junkies as addicts are at rationalizing their habit. We’re hooked on stimulation, on that spike of happy that hits our neurons when a NEW! NOW! NEXT! attracts our attention. Boredom terrifies us; to endure it without our iBlow would be like going cold turkey ten times as hour. But as MIT professor Sherry Turkle says, there’s a downside to calling our dependence on digital devices an addiction. It implies that our behavior is personal weakness, that it’s futile to resist. What needs our attention isn’t the cause of what ails us, but its toll on our wellness. What wants therapy is how our gizmos narrow the rest of our lives – how, as Turkle writes in “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age,” they constrict “our capacity to be alone and together,” how they contract “our ability to understand others and be heard.”

Turkle identifies a crisis of solitude and a crisis of empathy in our lives. “As we struggle to truly pay attention to ourselves,” to experience boredom and anxiety and the “rich, messy and demanding” feelings inherent in human relationships, “we struggle to pay attention to each other.” The more time we spend online, or itching to be online, the less time for “the risks of face-to-face conversation. But it’s there that empathy is born and intimacy thrives…. It’s often when we stumble, or struggle for our words, or are silent, that we reveal ourselves most to each other and to ourselves.”

Turkle is no Luddite. She describes the moment when, very nervous, about to give the first talk of a book tour, setting her iPhone on the podium to start a timer, she got a text from her daughter: “Mom, you will rock this.” Yes, the message was digitally delivered. But that didn’t undo its affect or its effect. “It was like a kiss.”

We need an intervention. We need to practice undivided attention – to each other, in conversation, and to ourselves, in solitude. “We don’t have to give up our phones,” she says, “but we have to use them more deliberately, …by working to protect sacred places, spaces without technology, in our everyday lives.”

Our madness is recent. The iPhone is just 10 years old. Still, that’s long enough for me to want a new ringtone: “Let my people go.”


Marty Kaplan holds the Norman Lear chair at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi sits before a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (unseen) at the presidential palace in Cairo Aug. 2, 2015. Photo by Brendan Smialowski/REUTERS.

Egypt and Jordan: Don’t give up on two-state solution


he heads of Egypt and Jordan said a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must be based on having two states.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt and King Abdullah of Jordan met Tuesday in Cairo.

“The two sides discussed future movements to break the gridlock within the Middle East peace process, especially with U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration taking power,” read a statement issued after the meeting.

“They also discussed mutual coordination to reach a two-state solution and establish a Palestinian state based on the June 4, 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as a capital which is a national constant that cannot be given up.”

The leaders also reportedly discussed Jerusalem and the maintenance of the status quo on the Temple Mount.

The meeting came days after the Israeli daily Haaretz first published a report revealing that one year ago, then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry presented a plan for a regional peace initiative to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a secret meeting in Aqaba that included Abdullah and al-Sisi.

The deal would have included recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and a renewal of talks with the Palestinians with the support of the Arab countries.

The meeting also comes after last week’s meeting in Washington, D.C., between Netanyahu and  Trump, in which Trump did not commit to a two-state solution in a break from U.S. policy from the early 2000s.

Photo from Pexels

The sun shines on us all equally


Parashat B’shalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16)

“In that hour the ministering angels wished to utter the song [of praise] before the Holy One, blessed be He, but He rebuked them, saying: My handiwork [the Egyptians] is drowning in the sea; would you utter song before me!”

— Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 39b

This week’s Torah portion contains one of the most powerful — and ethically challenging — teachings in the Torah as the Hebrews cross the Sea of Reeds, to be followed by the Egyptians, who are drowned. Jews are taught not to take joy in the pain of others. This is especially true when it is the pain of our enemies. The Bible and Talmud are full of remonstrations against this practice, and yet, sometimes it is all too easy to succumb to our yetzer hara (evil inclination) and do just that.

I will always retain the sad memory of walking into a cigar lounge in 2014, and hearing many of the people there cheering as they watched CNN. I thought it must be some sporting event; instead they were watching the destruction of a terror tunnel into Israel, and the people were cheering at the death of the Palestinian terrorists.

Dozens of parents had just lost their children, siblings had lost their brothers, and children had lost their fathers, and we could be assured that they all would hate Israel forever. In my mind, there was nothing to celebrate. Remembering the teaching of how God chastised the angels when they started to celebrate the death of the Egyptians at the Sea of Reeds, I accepted that it was necessary to destroy the tunnels, but simply wrong to celebrate the agony of others. Pharaoh, those terrorists and other adversaries are not our “enemies.” Rather they are adversaries that need to be defeated — but still respected as creations of God.

It is an important Jewish understanding — and particularly important now — that we don’t need to polarize our world even more by viewing the world through the lens of “enemies,” but instead respect all of life strongly enough that we work to change those adversaries into friends.

It seems that almost daily we read about incidents of hate around this country, from both sides of the political aisle. Instead of the healthy debate that is illustrated throughout the Talmud by our Sages, we see conservatives and liberals viewing the “other” not as wrong, but as evil. Each side seems to revel in any shortcoming by the other. History has shown repeatedly that if we continue down this path of celebrating the pain of our adversary, it leads only to a mutual pain for everyone involved.

So how can we regain a healthy and respectful dialogue with those whom we oppose? How can we learn to do what we believe we must without sacrificing our Jewish essence?

One of the many answers that our tradition teaches can be found in the holiday of this weekend, Tu B’Shevat. As we remember the goodness of God’s creations, as we celebrate the gifts that God has given to all of us no matter what our beliefs, our Sages teach that it can influence our behavior to embrace our personal differences and respect every other human. The celebration of nature has the potential to lead us to understanding. In nature, we find a balance that we can emulate in our interpersonal relationships.

There is an ancient text, “Perek Shirah” (Chapter of Song), that reminds us to treasure all of nature, and as a byproduct, to treasure all others, even if we disagree with them. It includes prayers about all aspects of nature — from the elements to plants to animals — and teaches us that when we really appreciate these Divine gifts, we change how we act with others. The idea is simple: bring balance and harmony to every relationship in nature, including between your friend and foe, and the benefits will extend from this world to the next.

As the political climate becomes polarized and it is difficult to stay centered, it is incumbent upon us to remember this Jewish teaching. Let us not only celebrate this magnificent holiday of Tu B’Shevat, but return to nature and appreciate the gifts that God has given us all. Maybe then we can bring real harmony into the world.

My prayer for all of us is to appreciate the divine gifts of life, including the disagreements we have with other people, and to use these disagreements as bridges to understanding and respecting one another — making adversaries into friends and remembering that we are all children of the same God.

The many faces of the Jewish refugee


Since the global refugee crisis took over front pages and cable networks, a popular statistic in the Jewish world has been the number 36. It’s mentioned frequently by politically attuned and progressive-leaning clergy as the number of times, at minimum, Jews are commanded in the Torah to care for the stranger in their midst, for they were strangers in the land of Egypt.

But there’s no need to look as far back as the Exodus to remember a time when Jews were strangers in a strange land. The face of the modern refugee is kaleidoscopic: Syrian, Afghan, Rohingya, Yazidi, Sudanese, Congolese. This effect is found in miniature within the many colors of the Jewish refugee over the last century: Persians, Russians, Iraqis, Poles, Germans, Algerians, and others who have sought respite in America.

In the few days since President Donald Trump signed an executive order restricting refugee admissions, the anti-Nazi theologian Marvin Niemoller has enjoyed a new vogue for his verse: “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out. … Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.” Today’s body politic has reimagined these lines as, “First they come for the Muslims, and then we said, ‘Not this time!’ ”

By compelling them to reach outward, to march for and alongside Muslims, the recent protests have caused American Jews to look inward and to draw on their own past. A look inside the very long — and yet very recent — history of Jewish refugees reveals a diversity that reflects today’s global refugee crisis, as well as its pervading narrative of persecution and hardship.

Collected below, edited for clarity and length, are six of these Jewish refugee stories, in their words.

cov-ebrahimi-then

From left: Simon Ebrahimi, his daughter Maryam and wife, Nahid, in Los Angeles in the early 1980s, shortly after arriving from Iran. Below: the portrait for his 2012 novel.

cov-ebrahimi-useAfter a few months, we arrive at the New York airport. I’m with two little children and my wife. And my wife, who knows my temperament, she said, “You just don’t argue with anybody. Let’s go through this.” I said, “Fine.” So the guy calls me and says, “Why didn’t you let go of our hostages?” I said, “Excuse me?” “You Iranians,” he says. “Why didn’t you let go of our hostages?” … The third time, which is, you know, typical, he came and he said, “You still didn’t respond to me.” I said, “You know what, why don’t you and I go to Iran together and release the hostages? It’s a simple solution!” 

— Simon Ebrahimi, 79, Woodland Hills

 

cov-milana-vayntrub-small

Milana Vayntrub as a toddler, newly arrived from Soviet Uzbekistan. As an adult, she has earned national fame in a series of AT&T commercials.

cov-milana-vayntrubThis is little me on the front steps of our apartment building in West Hollywood, in my coolest athletic gear. Most people living in that community were immigrants and it brought us so much closer together knowing we had this generous network of friends and babysitters we could rely on. A few years after arriving to America, my grandparents immigrated and moved in next door. My grandmother used to make Russian dumplings by hand and sell them to delis. She used her earnings to pay her way through school, where she studied English and accounting. Last year, she was able to comfortably retire. She’s a huge inspiration.

— Milana Vayntrub, 29, Hollywood

 

cov-igor-mikhaylov-old-kiev-1983

Igor Mikhaylov (center) in 1983 with his family in Kiev. Below: Mikhaylov with his wife and sons in 2013.

cov-igor-mikhaylov-yom-kippur-2013-75-of-1My family and I left the Soviet Union in 1989 when I was 10. We were escaping anti-Semitism, which was rampant. Jewish refugees could not go directly to the U.S., and places like Austria, where we were initially settled, were overrun with refugees. The situation could get very heated, with Austrian protestors holding picket signs that said, “Shoot the Jews!“ and yelling “Sterben!” — “Die!” Later, we settled in a beautiful Italian coastal town, Santa Marinella. It had magnificent views of the Tyrrhenian Sea, palms, beach and a medieval castle, but none of it was really enjoyable since we were living in limbo. People had heart attacks, aneurisms, nervous breakdowns. Then came the vetting process and questions such as, “Were you ever members of the Communist party?” The only correct answer was “No!”  Who would check? How can you prove it?

— Igor Mikhaylov, 38, Granada Hills

 

cov-penina

Penina Meghnagi Solomon (above, second from right) with her family in a refugee camp in Italy in 1967, after fleeing Libya. Below: in 2013.

cov-penina-nowI can remember the black sky from the burning. And we were in terror because they were looking for the Jews. … We lost everything. We had property, we had money in the banks. … I remember coming in [to the refugee camp in Italy] and not knowing where we’re going to sleep, what we’re going to eat, whatever. I was 17. And my mom was a widow at that time. … But maybe because my personality is I’m always looking to the positive on anything, I was happy to leave [Libya]. I was happy to leave to a place where I was subjugated to always worry, always with the head half turned back, you never know when you’re going to be pinched or someone’s going to try to kill you. So for me, we were on our way to freedom and it was a good feeling.

— Penina Meghnagi Solomon, 67, Valley Village

 

cov-geminder

Bob Geminder (right) with his brother George and cousin Muriel shortly after he arrived with his family in the U.S. after the Holocaust. Below: Geminder in Los Angeles in 2016.

cov-geminder-nowI was 12 years old. Knew no English pretty much, just some really bad words that the soldiers taught me at the German [displaced persons] camp. … This [photo above] was in East Orange, N.J. — that was kind of our first stop in America. … We were at that DP camp in Germany in Regensburg for about a year and a half, and that was kind of my first schooling. That’s where I learned the alphabet, I learned what two plus two is — you know, some math.. … The big joke in the Regensburg camp was, “Don’t worry about it — you’re going to find money on trees in America.” Me, being a foolish 12-year-old, I started looking at the trees.

— Bob Geminder, 81, Rancho Palos Verdes

 

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Tabby Refael (left) with her mother in the 1980s, shortly before emigrating from Iran. Below: Refael with her son in 2017.

cov-tabby-nowThe black-and-white photo features my mother and me in Iran in the mid-1980s. Iran printed the word “Jew” next to our names on our passports. Months later, on the same document, the Americans printed the three greatest words that have ever been written about us, stamped in a miraculous, indisputable promise: “Protected Refugee Status.” That alone should tell us something about the differences between repressive theocracies and redemptive democracies. I am eternally grateful to Congress and to HIAS (formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) for the gift of a renewed life, as this photo of my son and me in America in 2017 conveys. It also captures my inner joy at not having had to wear a mandatory Muslim head covering in more than 28 years.

— Tabby Refael, 34, Pico-Robertson

Would Obama be acting differently at the UN had Hillary won?


In a quick turn of events, Egypt has decided to delay on Thursday a draft United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement construction.

While there is still a chance that the UN Security Council could vote on a similar resolution within the coming days or weeks, Egypt has reportedly indicated that it would not reintroduce the resolution before President Barack Obama leaves office on January 20, 2017.

Obama had been planning on abstaining, thereby allowing the resolution to pass, according to NBC News. Congressional leaders have intensified the pressure on Obama to veto the Egyptian-led proposal. These stunts at the UN serve only one purpose—to defame and delegitimize the democratic State of Israel,” Speaker Ryan emphasized. Even within Obama’s own party, the President faced resistance. Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer emphasized, “Any workable and long-lasting solution to this conflict must come about through direct, bilateral negotiations, and this resolution undermines that effort.”

The Conference of Presidents of American Jewish Organizations also issued a statement welcoming the vote’s postponement and urging the resolution’s withdrawal. Interestingly, J-Street did not issue a public statement on the resolution and kept its focus on the campaign to oppose David Friedman’s nomination of Ambassador to Israel.

Trump’s firm stance against the UN draft may have played a significant role in influencing Cairo to defer the resolution. “Remember you have all of these allies and adversaries out there trying to figure out what is Trump going to do when he actually becomes President,” explained Aaron David Miller, former veteran State Department advisor on the Middle East, to Jewish Insider. “I am not sure (Egyptian President) Sisi wants to put himself in a position as one of the opening acts of the administration to be on the wrong side of Mr. Trump on this issue.”

Jonathan Schanzer, Vice President for Research, at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, credited “the deepening strategic ties between Egypt and Israel” in an interview with Jewish Insider. Citing the countries’ joint interests in the fight against Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, “Sisi was probably reluctant to scuttle those ties,” he added.

Since the Obama Administration’s likely intended for the settlement resolution to pass, Miller cited Obama’s personal ideological commitment to the Palestinian cause motivating him to abstain.  “Frustration and real resentment that the Israelis weren’t listening combined with the fact that the administration was running out of time propelled them either to abstain or to vote in favor,” he explained.

The question looming over the debate is whether the Obama administration would have acted differently if Hillary Clinton had won the presidency?

“A lot of Democrats would like for him to veto. The party is in bad shape, not only did they lose the presidential election but they also lost… both houses of Congress,” Elliot Abrams, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations told Jewish Insider. “They don’t need things that weaken the party further yet Obama is willing to see that happen. Had Clinton won, he would have had even less reason to be concerned about the condition of the Democratic Party,” Abrams added noting the numerous reports that the White House was willing to abstain on the UN resolution.

Schanzer believed that Clinton would have been unlikely to issue a public condemnation of the UN draft, in contrast to Trump. Rather, the former Secretary of State would have probably told Obama not to proceed with the abstention telling the White House: “You are going to tie my hands as the next president and make my life more difficult because it will appear as if I gave my blessing to this Security Council resolution,” Schanzer said.

Obama would have likely consulted with Clinton before making a decision, emphasized The Wilson Center’s Miller. Although he cautioned that it is difficult to predict, Clinton generally adopted a less hardline approach to settlements than Obama, which could have impacted her policy on this resolution, Miller said.

Lost in all of the media coverage about the role of Trump and Sisi in delaying the resolution was the Obama Administration’s apparent willingness to allow a resolution to pass that said that settlements have “no legal validity and constitute a flagrant violation under international law.” (Generally, White House officials call settlements illegitimate). Miller suggested that reporters clarify the Obama Administration current position whether they believe Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem are in fact “illegal.”

With the resolution’s future hanging in the balance, Abrams emphasized that domestic pressure on the White House may be the only remaining factor that could influence the President given the Israelis longstanding opposition. “The only hope I think would be people whose opinions the President may value more, democrats above all tell him that this will hurt the party and hurt his own reputation,” Abrams noted.

Egyptian Olympian lashes out after Israeli flag photobombing


An Egyptian Olympian who appears in a viral photo featuring an Israeli flag said on Facebook that she was photobombed by “dirty” people and there will “never be peace between me and these people in my life.”

Doaa Elghobashy, 19, a volleyball player, has been harshly criticized on Arab social media since the Israeli Embassy in Cairo shared the photo, which was initially shared by the pro-Israel advocacy group StandWithUs.

In a similar incident this week, the popular Tunisian singer Saber Rebai drew fire for appearing in a photograph with an Arab-Israeli soldier whom Rebai said he did not know was Israeli.

According to Ynet, Elghobashy told the Egyptian newspaper Al-Youm a-Saba that the photo was “a conspiracy against me to try and discredit my name.”

“It isn’t possible that I would take a picture with an Israeli because between these people and ourselves, it is not possible to have peace,” she said. “The Israeli woman was not with a flag, but when the picture was taken, she hoisted the flag without me knowing. You can see that in the picture.”

Elghobashy failed to medal at the Rio Games, but drew attention for being the first Olympic athlete to play beach volleyball in a hijab, according to The Times of Israel.

Egypt and Israel signed a peace accord in 1978, but anti-Israel sentiment remains pervasive in Egyptian society.

Egyptian judoka sent home over handshake refusal with Israeli


Egyptian judoka Islam El Shehaby has been sent home from the Rio Olympics after refusing to shake the hand of Israeli Or Sasson following the end of their bout, the International Olympic Committee said on Monday.

El Shehaby, who was sent home by his own team, lost the fight on Friday and was reprimanded by the IOC for his actions.

The IOC acknowledged that the rules of judo do not oblige players to shake hands but said El Shehaby's behaviour went against the Games' “rules of fair play” and “spirit of friendhsip”.

“The Egyptian Olympic Committee has also strongly condemned the actions of Mr Islam El Shehaby and has sent him home,” the IOC said in a statement. “The President of the National Olympic Committee issued a statement saying they respected all athletes and all nations at the Olympic Games.”

After Sasson defeated El Shehaby and the pair retook their places in front of the referee, the Egyptian backed away when Sasson bowed and approached him to shake hands.

When called back by the referee to bow, El Shehaby gave a quick nod before walking off amid loud boos from the crowd .

“The Disciplinary Commission (DC) considered that his behaviour at the end of the competition was contrary to the rules of fair play and against the spirit of friendship embodied in the Olympic Values,” the IOC said.

“The DC issued a 'severe reprimand for inappropriate behaviour' to the athlete. It noted….the shaking of hands after a match is not in the competition rules of the International Judo Federation.”

“As well as a severe reprimand, the DC has asked the Egyptian Olympic Committee to ensure in future that all their athletes receive proper education on the Olympic Values before coming to the Olympic Games,” the IOC said.

El Shehaby, 32, had reportedly been pressured by fans on social media not to show up for the match with his Israeli opponent, who went on to win bronze in the +100kg category, because it would shame Islam.

“Shaking the hand of your opponent is not an obligation written in the judo rules. It happens between friends and he's not my friend,” El Shehaby said after the bout.

“I have no problem with Jewish people or any other religion or different beliefs. But for personal reasons, you can't ask me to shake the hand of anyone from this State, especially in front of the whole world,” he said. 

Egypt was the first Arab power to make peace with Israel, in 1979, but the treaty remains unpopular among many Egyptians.

Turkey, Egypt, Africa: How ‘hard-liner’ Netanyahu pulled off a diplomacy trifecta


The conventional wisdom has it that earning the sobriquet “the most right-wing government in Israeli history” does not lead to diplomatic successes.

In recent weeks, on the Turkish, Egyptian and African fronts, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is proving the conventional wisdom wrong.

How is it that the head of a government beating a hasty retreat from the two-state solution scored a triumphant tour of Africa, hosted a convivial summit with an Egyptian foreign minister for the first time in nearly a decade and renewed full ties with Turkey?

Here’s a look at what Netanyahu’s diplomatic successes mean – and their limitations.

Oh, Bibi, Bibi, it’s a wild world

Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, talks about retreating from America’s preeminent role in the world. Although he is adamant that he is pro-Israel, Trump has suggested he could charge Israel for the billions in defense assistance it receives.

Similarly Europe, overwhelmed by a refugee crisis, is becoming more insular and, for the first time in decades, faces the prospect of falling apart as a common political force, with Britain’s planned exit from the European Union and other countries contemplating similar actions.

Meantime, calls to target Israel – or its settlements – with boycotts are increasing across the continent.

“In Israel, there’s broad recognition for no substitute for the U.S-Israel alliance. It remains crucial,” said Jonathan Schanzer, a vice president at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank with a focus on the Middle East. “There’s also a recognition that we are going through a turbulent period, and from a diplomatic perspective there are ways to defray some of these challenges.”

Among them: Enhance security ties with Egypt, reinvigorate decades-old ties in Africa and mend ties with Turkey.

The shared Sinai threat

The vastness of Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, its strategic positioning between Asia and Africa, and the porous nature of its Red Sea and Mediterranean Sea coasts have been like catnip to terrorist groups like al-Qaida and the Islamic State.

That poses a shared challenge to Israel and Egypt, and has helped already friendly ties between the nations; Israel was one of the few countries to celebrate the 2013 coup that removed the Muslim Brotherhood-led government and brought to power Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi.

Israel in recent months quietly has allowed Egyptian forces entry back into the peninsula, effectively allowing Egypt to abrogate one of the tenets, demilitarization, of the 1979 Camp David Peace Agreement. Commensurately, Egypt has allowed Israel to target terrorists with drones.

“You have a closely coordinated counterterrorism strategy in the Sinai,” Schanzer said. “You have intelligence sharing, increased numbers of Israelis are operating in the Sinai.”

That helps explain why Sissi was willing to send his foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, to Israel this week for a high-profile visit – effectively warming up a peace that Sissi’s predecessors preferred to keep cool. Keeping the Sinai secure trumped the domestic blowback Sissi knew he would endure for the visit.

Preempting the Palestinians, France and (maybe) the Obama administration

The French are trying to kick-start peace talks with the Palestinians under an international umbrella. The Palestinians hope to advance statehood recognition during the U.N. General Assembly launch in September. And President Barack Obama may deliver his own post-U.S. election surprise, setting out the U.S. parameters for a final-status arrangement.

All are anathema to Netanyahu, who favors direct talks with the Palestinians, where Israel is able to exercise greater leverage. Shoukry, the Egyptian foreign minister, appeared to favor the direct talks track, saying his visit was part of Sissi’s “vision for establishing peace between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples — bringing this long conflict to an end.”

Bringing Egypt into the configuration increases pressure on the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, to return to direct talks, said David Makovsky, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Egypt is the P.A.’s lead patron in the Arab world, and Abbas can ill afford to alienate Sissi.

“While the PA president has had no problem rejecting Netanyahu’s call to resume talks amid disbelief that anything concrete will emerge from them, bringing Egypt into the picture raises the cost of any such rejection,” Makovsky wrote on the think tank’s website.

Turkey is more about what Erdogan needs

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, pressed for the rupture with Israel in 2010 after Israel’s deadly raid on a Palestinian convoy aiming to breach Israel’s blockade with Gaza. Now he’s the force behind the reconciliation.

Erdogan is dealing with restive Kurds in the south, the chaos in Syria across his country’s border and the blowback from his decision recently to take tougher measures against the Islamic State. He needs to smooth waters elsewhere.

Reestablishing ties with Israel not only returns an important trade partner to eminence and restores full security ties at a time of crisis, it addresses a longstanding U.S. demand that its two most important allies in the Middle East reconcile.

“Erdogan is starting to realize he’s overstretched; Turkey is dealing with so many problems at once,” said Ilan Goldenberg, the director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security think tank. “Erdogan is realizing he has to pull back.”

Back to Africa

The last time there was a movement on the rise to isolate Israel — in the wake of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when the Arab League used oil leverage to pressure third parties to join their boycott — Israel countered by quietly reinforcing ties in Africa.

The ties, established in the 1950s and 1960s, already were a point of pride for Israel, identifying the Jewish state not as a colonial anomaly, as the Arab nations would have it, but as a postcolonial triumph of an indigenous people.

That very much was the point of Netanyahu’s four-nation African tour, said Schanzer.

“One gets the sense we’re revisiting history amid the new boycott movement — and it’s yielding dividends,” he said.

The tour coincided with the 40th anniversary of an Israeli commando raid on Entebbe in Uganda, where terrorists were holding Israeli airplane passengers with the sanction of the country’s then dictator, Idi Amin. Netanyahu’s elder brother, Yoni, was killed leading the rescue effort.

But the tour was more than symbolic, participants said. Netanyahu traveled with 80 men and women representing some 50 businesses, and was well prepared to assist them, according to Yosef Abramowitz, CEO of Energiya Global Capital, a Jerusalem-based solar energy and social development enterprise.

Abramowitz said he shook hands on $1 billion worth of deals during the four-nation tour.

“A fully coordinated government initiative brilliantly executed in every country by the Prime Minister’s Office, the embassies and the Israel Export Institute, it was clockwork,” he said.

Egypt’s foreign minister visiting Israel, first time in a decade


The foreign minister of Egypt is in Israel to discuss his country’s recommendations for peace between Israel and the Palestinians with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Sunday’s visit by Sameh Shoukry is the first by an Egyptian foreign minister since 2007, according to Netanyahu.

Speaking at the start of the weekly Cabinet meeting on Sunday, Netanyahu said the visit “teaches about the change that has come over Israel-Egypt relations, including President [Abdel Fattah] el-Sissi’s important call to advance the peace process with both the Palestinians and Arab countries.”

 

“The Egyptian foreign minister is coming on behalf of the president of Egypt; we welcome him.”

Shoukry, who has been foreign minister for two years, visited Ramallah for the first time two weeks ago to talk about Egypt’s peace plans with Palestinian leaders, Haaretz reported.

Netanyahu and Shoukry are scheduled to meet in the afternoon and evening.

They also reportedly will discuss coordination between their two countries over the search for wreckage of the EgyptAir flight that crashed in May after some was recovered off the coast of Netanya on Thursday. The flight from Paris to Cairo crashed into the Mediterranean Sea, killing the 66 passengers and crew on board.

Egyptian peace plan looks to engage ‘most extreme elements in Israel’


Last year’s Egyptian television series for Ramadan “Harat al Yehud” (Jewish Quarter) displayed nuance and nostalgia toward Egypt’s mid-century “Israelites.”

This holiday season’s “Alqayasar” (The Kingpin) reveals a full-frontal hardening of attitudes toward the Muslim Brotherhood and the Palestinians of Gaza.

“Alqayasar” portrays the evil deeds and shady alliances of a terror cell leader who uses tunnels near Rafa to commute between his hideouts in the Nile Delta and the Gaza headquarters of Islamist groups, where he also meets up with Palestinian mafia dons and hatches a series of plots against the Egyptian homeland.

Much of the action takes place in the North Sinai, where Egyptian forces are in the third phase of a struggle against the local branch of ISIS, dubbed Operation Martyr’s Right by the army chiefs in Cairo. 

Both the Ramadan holiday and the “Alqayasar” series have several more weeks to go, but it’s a foregone conclusion that the show’s virtuous and now digitally savvy Egyptian army will ensnare the fictional kingpin by the time the country celebrates Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of the month of fasting.

Less certain, however, is the outcome of efforts by real-life Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, commonly known as Sisi, to quell a Sinai insurgency and motivate the Israelis to conclude a statehood deal with the Palestinians.

Both items are linked in Egyptian strategic thinking. 

One year ago, Sisi told a visiting delegation from the American Jewish Committee that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute “will eliminate one of the most important reasons relied upon by terrorists to attract people to join their cause.”

Last month, the Egyptian president said his country is willing to exert all possible efforts to make a final peace deal work between Israel and the Palestinians.

Sisi made a direct appeal on Israeli TV channels pledging that, once an agreement is reached, both peoples will be able to overcome the layers of animosity currently separating them, “just as the Egyptians and Israelis have.”

While Cairo and Jerusalem now enjoy unprecedented levels of security cooperation, neither the Egyptian military nor its diplomats have ever reconciled themselves with Israel’s 2004 unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. 

At the time, the army expressed fears of the consolidation of a Hamas-controlled entity on the edge of the Sinai and fretted over the possibility that an Islamist Gaza would militarize the Muslim Brotherhood.

The political echelon saw the move as a deviation from the Bush roadmap, which in part reflected the 2002 Saudi Arab Peace initiative. 

As far as Cairo is concerned, events since the withdrawal have proven these pessimistic forecasts accurate. 

Saeed Okasha, in-house Israeli affairs analyst for the quasi-governmental Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said Sisi’s new initiative is connected to the rise of ISIS militancy — the radical Islamist group claimed responsibility for the October explosion of a Russian passenger jet over the Sinai and is believed by many Egyptians to be the likely culprit behind the downing of the EgyptAir flight from Paris in May — and, as importantly, the emergent threats posed by Iran to the Sunni Arab states.

“The IS presence in the Sinai, the provision of weapons to the Muslim Brotherhood from Gaza and the lack of a breakthrough on Palestinian statehood are related problems for us,” Okasha said in an interview with the Journal. 

“But now we are facing [a] new reality where both the Arabs and Israelis don’t trust the Americans to coordinate a peace effort, and the Saudis have joined us in an effort find to a solution that frees us to confront Iran.”

A poll released by the by the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the IDC Herzliya on the eve of its annual conference seems to demonstrate that public opinion in Egypt and the Gulf is aligned with Sisi and Saudi King Salman.  

More Saudis (41.6 percent) and Egyptians (32.1 percent) think the next U.S. president should get behind a regional agreement, rather than force direct Israeli-Palestinian talks, which garnered only 18.9 percent approval in the Saudi kingdom and 25.5 percent from Egyptians. 

Both Egypt’s and Jordan’s ambassadors to Israel participated in this year’s Herzliya conference.

“It’s time to activate the Arab Peace Initiative,” said Egypt’s ambassador, Hazem Khairat, referring to the regional framework conceived by the Saudis under the rubric of all Arab states fully recognizing Israel, in return for an independent Palestinian territory resembling something close to the 1967 borders.

“The two-state solution is the only way to end this conflict. There is not much time left, and there is no other alternative,” Khairat said.

Eran Lerman, a senior research associate at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center, thinks regional realities in 2016 have generated positive changes in the Israeli-Egyptian relationship. 

“Both face the same threats to their security — Iran, Islamic State and the Muslim Brotherhood — even if the Egyptian order of priorities is the reverse of the Israeli.”

The Al-Ahram Center’s Okasha says Egypt won’t even let Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as Israel’s Defense Minister deter efforts to broker a deal. 

“We think Israeli public opinion will be more convinced by an agreement backed by someone like Lieberman. If you want real peace, you have to do it with the most extreme elements in Israel,” Okasha said.

“And that is what [Anwar] Sadat achieved with Menachem Begin.” 

Shavuot: a holiday unmarked by date, without ritual, unconfined by space


The literal translation of Shavuot is the Festival of Weeks” because of the holiday’s connection with Passover. In Rabbinic Hebrew, this festival is called Atzeret because it is similar to Shemini Atzeret, which follows the festival of Sukkoth. However, unlike Shemini Atzeret, which is celebrated immediately after Sukkot, Shavuot is celebrated only seven weeks after Passover. Even so, these two holidays have one and the same meaning: summing up and emphasizing the significance of the festival that preceded them.

Passover’s meaning is simple and straightforward: it is a festival of freedom, celebrating the beginning of our national existence and focuses – especially in the context of the Exodus – on the significance of freedom. The primary, most basic meaning of freedom is the removal of shackles, the end of bondage. But even without shackles, an existence without purpose is meaningless. For even with the best of intentions, one cannot liberate a thing or a person that does not have a will of its own. One can sever the chains that tie a chair to its place, but this will not grant it freedom, because freedom means inner will and aspirations.

When they left Egypt, the Children of Israel were liberated from slavery, but still did not have a will of their own More than that, in their first weeks of desert wandering, they were not yet freed from the vicissitudes of life: they experienced hunger and thirst, and they also learned that not all of their wishes can be fulfilled. Although they walked in the desert with full Divine protection, they had only very little awareness. The People of Israel were just like an infant, aware only of its most basic feelings.

At the end of this fuzzy period of searching for meaning, of attempting to reach awareness, comes the Giving of the Torah. Indeed, Shavuot not only marks the end of this primal, childish era: it is a transition into a totally different stage. An Exodus from Egypt without the giving of the Torah would be deliverance without liberty, a purposeless shattering of fetters, an end to slavery but without freedom. The Giving of the Torah, surely the most significant event in Jewish history, endows sense and meaning not only to the Exodus but to Jewish life in general. This moment sets up the great framework, towards which the entire Jewish nation is moving.

Our Sages point out that Shavuot is the day in which the Torah in its entirety was given to us – but it is not the festival of the receiving of the Torah. Receiving the Torah comes through our individual and collective understanding of its contents, aspirations and goals. We receive the Torah when we accept it within ourselves, as part of our thinking, experiences and desires.

This is an extended process that takes not weeks, months or years, but many generations. It also does not happen simultaneously for everyone.  The Jewish people encompassing all generations – both as individuals and as a nation — is still in the process of the receiving of the Torah. This is our greatest existential challenge, and it is not an easy one. Indeed, not everyone embraces it with understanding or with serenity and joy: some approach it out of a profound ecstatic experience. Many feel the elation of finding a solution, while so many others merely plod along. But all of us are in it.

that is why Shavuot has a unique status among the three Pilgrimage Festivals. In Passover, in addition to its special rites, there are also special foods; in Sukkoth, there are many rites, as well as all the limitations stemming from living in the Sukkah. On Shavuot, however – which is the only pilgrimage festival that lasts only one day – there are no special rites, either food- or lodging-wise. This is because Shavuot is, itself, the opening to the sphere from which everything else flows and stems.

Perhaps this is why the Torah was given in a place that is not a place – an indistinct point in the desert – and at a time which is not a time – because the precise date of the Giving of the Torah is not mentioned anywhere in the Torah. In fact, the Torah does not even state anywhere that Shavuot is indeed the time of the Giving of the Torah!

This festival expresses, then, how the Torah – which is not confined or limited by time or space – is given to human beings who live within time and space. The Giving of the Torah is a sort of “sleeve” from a higher world to a lower world; and after being there for a short while, the Children of Israel are called upon to take the memory of this encounter with a higher reality, so totally different from our existence, and live it. This is no simple feat; and indeed, both as individuals and as a nation we have been tackling for millennia with this question: how can we, in the reality of our existence, attain eternal freedom and be members of a “nation of priests” that is God's “special treasure,” a nation that throughout its history is struggling to be holy?


Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz is the author of more than 60 books. He is best known for his groundbreaking commentary on the Babylonian Talmud and is working on a forthcoming commentary on the entire Bible.

Avigdor Lieberman jokes about curbing his fiery nature


In first remarks as Israel's designated defense minister, right-wing settler Avigdor Lieberman joked about his fiery reputation: “I have undergone surgery to lengthen my fuse.”

In a more serious vein, the Soviet-born 57-year-old struck a conciliatory note, emphasizing “a strong commitment, to the peace, to the final status agreement (with the Palestinians).”

After Wednesday's signing ceremony, military officers, diplomats and Palestinian leaders were left asking whether this combative figure would pursue a less confrontational line after he formally re-joins the cabinet next week.              

Lieberman, who had a modest stint in Israel's armed forces, has in the past threatened to bomb Egypt's strategic Aswan dam and to assassinate Hamas leaders. He agitated Washington with his opposition to peace talks with Palestinians.

Youssef Al-Mahmoud, a spokesman for the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, said that by bringing in Lieberman, the Israeli government “is mixing extremism with craziness.”

The former foreign minister also angered the Israeli top brass, whom he will oversee, by joining protests last month against the court-martial of a soldier who shot dead an incapacitated Palestinian assailant.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has brushed off any “crying and whining” at his pick for the second-most powerful cabinet post, part of a deal to broaden the religious-nationalist coalition government.

Netanyahu on Sunday had underlined his own leading role in national security was not about to change. “I've been looking out for Israel's security,” he said. “I haven't done such a bad job in my years as premier, and that is how it will be now.”

But the men have had a chequered relationship and the courting of Lieberman came as a surprise as he and Netanyahu have been sharply dismissive of one another.

Lieberman went from being chief of staff to Netanyahu in his first term as premier in the 1990s, to openly feuding with him while serving as his foreign minister in the last government, to mocking him from the opposition.

Lieberman had been critical of Netanyahu’s efforts to patch up relations with Turkey after a deadly 2010 Israeli raid on a Turkish–flagged ship that was protesting against Israel’s Gaza blockade and said the prime minister had lacked a clear strategy on the Iran nuclear issue.

SUPPLE AND PRAGMATIC

Some observers argue that, for all his bluster, Lieberman is a supple and pragmatic politician who will view the defense portfolio as a chance to cultivate national security credentials that, unlike the ex-generals who have filled the post, he lacks.

“Why the panic?” political commentator Yoel Marcus asked in the liberal Haaretz daily. “This is a democracy … And as a rule, important (and unimportant) decisions aren’t made by one man. Calm down … The defense minister is not omnipotent. In reality, he decides much less than most people think he does.”

An immigrant from Soviet Moldova, Lieberman served two years as an Israeli army conscript, with the rank of corporal.

Several former Israeli defense ministers have criticized Lieberman's appointment to the sensitive post.

The last “civilian” to become defense minister, ex-trade union boss Amir Peretz, managed the 2006 war with Hezbollah guerrillas that calmed the Israel-Lebanon border. He developed the Iron Dome anti-rocket system, over objections from a military more accustomed to taking the fight to enemy territory.

Now a center-left opposition lawmaker, Peretz predicted no problem with Lieberman's professionalism, but rather, with his past pronouncements about the folly of peace-making and in favor of tougher Israeli crackdowns on Palestinian violence.

Palestinian officials said that with Lieberman, who lives in a settlement in the West Bank, back in the cabinet as defense minister prospects for reviving statehood negotiations that collapsed in 2014 had grown dimmer.

The Defence Ministry runs civil affairs in the West Bank, where Palestinians live in friction with Jewish settlers.

“Without a doubt, the question of the 'command spirit' will arise, with some in the ranks wondering whether this defense minister has, effectively, revised military ethics, especially regarding open-fire regulations,” Peretz told Reuters.

“The defense minister is, in a sense, the 'prime minister of Judea and Samaria',” Peretz said, using a biblical term for the West Bank. “It is a role that requires supreme sensitivity for humanitarian needs, which can have a big impact on statecraft.”

“GO TO HELL”

Over the years, Lieberman has angered Israel's first Arab peace partner, Egypt. In 2008, he said then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak could “go to hell” for never paying an official visit to Israel.

As foreign minister, Lieberman opposed Netanyahu's terms for salvaging troubled bilateral relations with Turkey and was mostly sidelined in Western capitals, which preferred to correspond directly with the premier on the delicate diplomacy.

Lieberman would be harder to circumvent as defense minister, given the depth of Israel-U.S. security ties. Those now face a big test as Netanyahu tries to coax the White House into raising U.S. defense grants to Israel, currently at $3 billion a year.

The Obama administration has publicly said it “looks forward to working” with whoever replaces Moshe Yaalon, the former Israeli military chief of staff who resigned as defense minister last week in protest at Netanyahu's cabinet reshuffle.

Privately, some U.S. officials sound less than happy about Lieberman's ascent. Not only do his past views on the Palestinians run counter to one of the administration's core policy pursuits, but he has for years worked to bring Israel closer to Russia.

Leaked U.S. diplomatic cables from 2009 noted “Moscow's impression that the Russian-speaking Lieberman is one of their own”. They also said Russia saw him as “more pragmatic on the peace process than his typically harsh rhetoric suggests.”

Egypt reportedly pushing for Netanyahu-Abbas summit


Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sissi reportedly is coaxing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to meet face to face.

Sissi, according to Ynet News, is hoping to organize an Egypt-led peace summit in Cairo where the two leaders, who haven’t met formally since 2010, would negotiate directly. Sissi’s efforts come as France is organizing an international Israeli-Palestinian peace summit to take place in the fall.

Sissi has been advocating a fresh round of talks recently and has made contact with both sides regarding his initiative; neither has declined. He could be in a unique position to influence both leaders, according to Ynet, because of Egypt’s strong diplomatic ties to the P.A. and close security cooperation with Israel.

“There is a real opportunity for peace even if in the short term there is no real basis given the conditions in the region,” Sissi said on Egyptian television, according to Ynet.

US, Egypt discuss reviving Mideast peace talks while Netanyahu appoints hard-line minister


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sissi to discuss how to revive Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, along with other shared concerns.

Meeting in Cairo Wednesday, Kerry “expressed his appreciation for [Sissi’s] recent statement of strong support for advancing Arab-Israeli peace,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement, according to The Associated Press.

The statement did not provide details on any specific peace efforts under discussion, although on Tuesday Sissi expressed support for a French initiative to jump-start negotiations, an initiative Israel has opposed. Also not clear is whether Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s appointment Wednesday of far-right politician Avigdor Liberman as foreign minister will affect Egypt’s support for promoting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Sissi said Tuesday that Egypt would “make every effort” toward a solution. His announcement came hours after French President Francois Hollande said a summit of representatives of 20 countries that had been scheduled for May 30 would be postponed because Kerry cannot attend.

Describing the French initiative as a “real opportunity,” Sissi called on the sides to “please, reach an agreement so a solution can be found.”

In a statement of response issued Tuesday, Netanyahu thanked Sissi and said, “Israel is ready to participate with Egypt and other Arab states in advancing both the diplomatic process and stability in the region. I appreciate President el-Sissi’s work and also draw encouragement from his leadership on this important issue.”

It is not clear how Liberman’s ascent to the Foreign Ministry — part of a restructuring in the Israeli governing coalition — will affect discussions with Egypt.

Liberman, of the hard-line nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party, served as foreign minister from 2009-2015.

Netanyahu had sought Liberman as a partner since after the most recent elections in March 2015. But Liberman had criticized Netanyahu harshly over what he saw as his tepid conduct of the 2014 Gaza war. As coalition negotiations ended last year, Liberman chose to sit in the Knesset opposition, claiming the new government would not abide his hawkish principles.

Netanyahu had engaged in increasingly serious talks recently with the rival Labor Party. Labor chairman Isaac Herzog, whose poll numbers have only fallen since the 2015 elections, appeared eager to join the government. He hoped to serve as foreign minister and push Israel toward renewed negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.

“Today is the day he gave up on the chance to lead a great change in our future,” Herzog said of Netanyahu in a Wednesday night news conference. “We will not give the crazy government of Liberman and [Education Minister Naftali] Bennett a day of silence. I will unite all the forces to turn their lives into a nightmare until we replace them.”

Liberman’s appointment will mean the ouster of the current defense minister, Moshe Yaalon, who had attempted to be a voice for moderation against critics to the government’s right.

Yaalon drew verbal fire from far-right activists after criticizing the soldier who killed an immobilized terrorist in Hebron in March. This month, he and Netanyahu clashed after Yaalon defended Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Yair Golan, who in a Holocaust Remembrance Day speech compared aspects of Israeli society to trends that occurred in 1930s Germany.

The pro-settler Jewish Home party, another coalition member, cheered Yaalon’s exit, approvingly calling the imminent government “the most right-wing ever in Israel.”

“Bogie is leaving, and that’s good,” Jewish Home said in a statement Wednesday, using Yaalon’s nickname, according to Israeli media reports. “This was a year of tremendous damage to the IDF. A year of abandoning soldiers, a year of a horrible culture in the army. Bogie needs to go home, and he’s going.”

Passover in Seoul


Israel promised acess to Straits of Tiran after Saudi-Egypt deal, says defense chief


Israel was guaranteed in writing free passage through the Straits of Tiran after Saudi Arabia’s planned takeover of two strategic Red Sea islands, Israel’s defense minister told reporters Tuesday.

Egypt agreed to hand over the islands, which it has controlled for more than 60 years, as part of a deal to build a bridge over the sea between the two countries that was announced during a weekend visit by King Salman of Saudi Arabia.

The deal had raised questions about Israel’s continued access to the passage, the revocation of which was a casus belli of the 1976 Six-Day War between Israel and its neighbors. But Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said Israel was consulted early in talks over the deal and gave its consent.

“An appeal was made to us – and it needed our agreement, the Americans who were involved in the peace agreement and of the MFO,” Yaalon said, referring to the Multinational Force and Observers peacekeeping forces at the Israeli-Egyptian border. “We reached an agreement between the four parties – the Saudis, the Egyptians, Israel and the United States – to transfer the responsibility for the islands, on condition that the Saudis fill in the Egyptians’ shoes in the military appendix of the peace agreement.”

In the document given to Israel, Saudi Arabia, which does not have formal relations with Israel, pledges to abide by the principles that have governed Israeli-Egyptian relations since their 1979 peace treaty, Haaretz reported. According to the treaty, the Straits of Tiran and the entire Gulf of Aqaba are international waterways open to free passage by Israel and overseen by the international observers.

The islands being relinquished to Saudi Arabia, Tiran and Sanafir, stand sentry at the entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba. The Israeli city of Eilat and the Jordanian city of Aqaba are located at the northern tip of the gulf. The Saudi-Egyptian deal has faced public criticism in Egypt as a blow to national pride.

U.S. reviewing Sinai peacekeeper mission, looks at automating jobs


The U.S. military said on Tuesday it has formally notified Egypt and Israel that it is reviewing multinational peacekeeping operations in the insurgency-wracked Sinai, including ways to use technology to do the job of some U.S. troops there.

U.S. officials, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said using remote surveillance technology could eventually allow the United States to withdraw hundreds of its roughly 700 peacekeeping troops.

Installed to monitor the demilitarization of the Sinai under the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace accord, the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) mission has come under increased scrutiny over the past year after six peacekeepers were wounded by a roadside bomb. Four U.S. soldiers were among them.

The United States believes that the structure of the more than three-decade old operation may be outdated.

“I don't think anyone's talking about a (complete) withdrawal,” said Navy Captain Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, declining to enter into specifics about any potential troop reduction.

“I think we're just going to look at the number of people we have there and see if there are functions that can be automated or done through remote monitoring.”

Changing the MFO mission could be a sensitive proposition to both Israel and Egypt.

Cairo sees the MFO as part of a relationship with Israel that, while unpopular with many Egyptians, brings it $1.3 billion in annual U.S. defense aid, sweetening the foreign-enforced demilitarization of their sovereign Sinai territory.

For the Israelis, the MFO offers strategic reassurance, especially following Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's toppling two years ago of an elected Islamist regime hostile to the Jewish-majority state next door.

Among the options being considered are use of remote sensors or surveillance to do some of the work in the Sinai, the peninsula that lies between Israel, the Gaza Strip and the Suez Canal.

“What we are looking at is, this has been in existence for 30 years and the mission has remained largely unchanged,” Davis said.

“What we want to be able to do is look at the core things that that mission provides and see how we can leverage modern technologies, remote surveillance capabilities, etc., to be able to carry out that mission.”

Egyptian security efforts in the Sinai have suffered major setbacks, including the Oct. 31 downing of a Russian airliner and Friday's bombing of two armored personnel carriers that killed seven.

Islamic State insurgents claimed responsibility for both incidents.

Israel reportedly to raise Egypt border fence to block African migrants


Israel reportedly plans to increase the height of its fence on the Egyptian border in an effort to keep out African migrants.

Defense officials said Tuesday the fence will be raised by 20 feet in response to an uptick in the numbers of Africans making it over, some using ladders, Haaretz reported.

The fence along the Egyptian border was built between 2010 and 2015. Just 14 people illegally crossed the border in 2014, compared with 12,000 in 2010, but the number has risen to 200 in the past year, according to Haaretz.

Last year, Israeli soldiers fired on Africans who approached the fence, wounding three. An investigation by military police found the shooting was unwarranted.

The Defense Ministry is seeking contractors to raise the fence, Haaretz reported, and the army says other measures to reduce border crossings are planned.

Egypt sees Israel’s (non-existent) hand behind troubling dam


A vote by Egypt’s parliament to oust a maverick media mogul because he hosted the Israeli ambassador at his home in late February laid bare the limitations of the Cairo-Jerusalem alliance and served as the second notice this week that President Abel Fatah el Sisi and his administration will assert full control over the country’s foreign policy.

Tawfik Okasha, who has been dubbed Cairo’s Glenn Beck, was voted out of Egypt’s newly elected parliament Wednesday after a three hour meeting with Israeli Ambassador Haim Koren in which the legislator asked for Jerusalem’s intervention to modify Ethiopia’s construction of a huge dam in the headwaters of the Nile.

“They (Israel) are the ones building the Renaissance Dam,” Okasha  said. “Are we fooling ourselves?”

Okasha has veered between lionizing the Israelis as “real men” and positing a “Zionist- American conspiracy to divide Egypt into 3 or 4 small and weak countries” during broadcasts on his Al-Faraeen “The Pharaohs” TV channel.

In 2014, even the strongest supporters of the Camp David peace accords with Israel winced when Okasha called on the Egyptian army to join the IDF in striking Hamas targets in Gaza.

He’s also been ridiculed for forging a PhD. diploma from a non–existent Florida university.

The week also witnessed the ousting of Egypt’s most senior diplomat, Arab League Secretary General Nabil Al-Araby after he veered off script on Israeli –Palestinian matters.

As the most populous member state, Egypt traditionally nominates the Arab League’s chief executive and the organization is headquartered directly adjacent to Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

The surprise announcement by 8o year old Al-Araby that he would not seek another term came just days after he told the daily al-Hayat newspaper that Hamas’s al-Qassam Brigades “are not terrorists and have a legitimate right to defend their people.”

In public, Al Araby’s “decision” was handled with diplomatic grace as Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry expressed “deep appreciation for the Secretary General’s contributions to support the unity of Arab ranks and protect Arab interests.”

“Al Araby has been deeply unpopular and divisive,” said a Foreign Ministry official on background.

“We are in dialogue with Hamas’ political leadership over Palestinian issues but the Secretary General made a mistake in contradicting our position on terrorism.”

There was no subtlety however in the parliament’s response to Okasha’s freelance diplomacy.

“This is what a traitor deserves,” shouted Nasserist MP Kamal Ahmed as he hit Okasha with his shoe.

While a group of MPs moved to diffuse the brawl on the floor of the Council of Deputies   and described Ahmed’s assault as “vulgar”, momentum gathered quickly to out Okasha for meeting the ambassador without seeking approval from the Foreign Ministry.

Egypt’s constitution stipulates that the legislature will respect all international agreements, but extending current security cooperation with Israel to broadened economic and cultural ties is linked in the minds of the public, and it’s newly elected politicians with a resolution of the Palestinian dispute.

“Okasha’s request for Israeli mediation to solve the problem of Ethiopia’s Grand Nile Renaissance Dam in exchange for providing them with one billion cubic meters of Egypt’s water is a national security violation,” said MP Mustafa Barkri, a fierce opponent of normalization of relations with the Jewish State.

The dam will be Africa’s largest hydroelectric facility and anxiety is growing here that the reservoir behind it will divert billions of cubic meters at the source of 97 per cent of Egypt’s fresh water. Conspiracy theorists in the popular press insist Israel is behind it.

A representative example can be found in an opinion piece this month by columnist Haider Mahmoud in the Cairo daily El Badil.

“There is current information about Israel's involvement in the financing of the dam for the purpose of restricting Egypt’s water, but there are no documents to confirm this involvement,” wrote Mahmoud without irony.

“Our last option is military intervention against the dam.”

Now the parliamentarian Okasha seems to have few career options in Cairo- he’s lost his seat in the legislature, been forced to put Al-Faraeen TV up for sale, and reportedly is seeking political asylum either in the United States or Germany.

Yossi Alpher, an Israeli security analyst who served the Mossad in Africa, says that while the Egyptian conspiracy theories are baseless, the concerns about the dam are understandable.

“Egyptian decision makers are quite aware that it’s an Italian firm building the dam and they know that we have no connection to the planning, financing, or design of it,” said Alpher, the author of the book “Periphery” which examines Israel’s attempts to forge strategic alliances with Iran, Turkey, and Ethiopia as well as with the South Sudanese and the Kurds.

“We could offer the Egyptians water recycling technology and use our access to the Ethiopians to bridge the issues, but effective mediation efforts need to be conducted discreetly,” Alpher said.

BREAKING: Gunmen open fire at Egyptian hotel, wounding foreign tourists


Gunmen opened fire at the entrance of a hotel in the Egyptian Red Sea resort city of Hurghada on Friday, wounding two foreign tourists, security sources said.

The assailants had arrived by sea to launch the assault, the sources said.

The Islamic State militant group said on Friday an attack on Israeli tourists in Cairo on Thursday was carried out by its fighters, in response to a call by the group's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to target Jews “everywhere”.

Security sources said those tourists were Israeli Arabs. None was hurt and Egyptian authorities said the attack was aimed at security forces.

A Russian passenger plane crashed in Sinai on Oct. 31, killing all 224 people on board, most of whom were tourists returning home from the Red Sea resort of Sharm al-Sheikh.

Cairo says it has found no evidence of terrorism in the crash. Russia and Western governments have said the airliner was probably brought down by a bomb, and Islamic State said it had smuggled explosives on board.

Tourism is a cornerstone of the Egyptian economy but has been badly hit by years of political turmoil.

Gunmen fire at Israeli tourists in Cairo, no casualties


Gunmen opened fire on Israeli tourists as they boarded a bus in Cairo on Thursday but there were no casualties, security sources said, while the Interior Ministry said the attack was directed at security forces.

[UPDATE / JAN. 8, 2016: ISIS says attack was response to leader’s call to target Jews]

Egypt declared it would step up security at major tourist attractions last year after Islamist militants carried out several attacks, causing its struggling tourism industry to slump further.

Thursday's shooting took place at the Three Pyramids Hotel, on a road leading to the Giza pyramids southwest of the capital. It is likely to raise questions over President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's repeated promises to stamp out militancy in Egypt.

Security sources said the tourists boarding the bus were Israeli Arabs.

The Interior Ministry said in a statement 15 people who had gathered on a side street near the hotel threw home-made fireworks in the direction of security forces stationed there.

PILLAR OF THE ECONOMY

“One of the loiterers fired a home-made pellet gun in the direction of the security in front of the hotel, causing some damage to the glass façade of the hotel as well as the window of a tourist bus. No injuries occurred,” it said.

Security forces apprehended one person who was hiding behind the hotel, the ministry said.

One gunman was arrested at the scene and security forces surrounded the other attacker in another part of Cairo, said security sources earlier. There has been no claim of responsibility for the attack.

Bilal Mahajne, deputy mayor of Umm el-Fahm, an Arab town in northern Israel, said on Israel Radio that one of his associates had spoken to some of the tourists who were on the bus. Mahajne said: “They are all safe and well, and back in the hotel in Cairo.” He said the group was on an organized tour.

In June last year, a suicide bomber blew himself up near the ancient Karnak Temple in the southern city of Luxor, wounding three Egyptians. A week earlier, gunmen on a motorcycle shot dead two members of the tourism police at Giza.

Tourism is a pillar of the Egyptian economy, which has been struggling to recover from political turmoil that began with the 2011 uprising that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

In one of the worst attacks, Islamic State's Egypt affiliate has said it planted a bomb on a Russian passenger plane that crashed in the Sinai on Oct. 31, killing all 224 people on board.

Egyptian jihadists, who have pledged allegiance to Islamic State, have killed hundreds of Egyptian soldiers and police since the army toppled Islamist President Mohamed Mursi in 2013 after mass protests against his rule.

Israel finishes prisoner swap with Egypt for accused Bedouin-Israeli spy


Israel released four Egyptian prisoners jailed for drug trafficking, bringing to six the number of Egyptians freed in exchange for a suspected spy who was returned to Israel.

The latest four were released on Monday, following the two other prisoners set free on Thursday — the same day that Bedouin-Israeli Ouda Tarabin was sent back to Israel after serving a 15-year prison sentence on charges of spying for Israel.

Three of the six released Egyptian prisoners had completed their sentences; the others had up to six years remaining.

“I am happy that Ouda is back with us again,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the Cabinet meeting on Sunday. “The State of Israel takes care of all its citizens without exception.”

Netanyahu noted that he worked with three Egyptian presidents – Hosni Mubarak, Mohamed Morsi and the current leader, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi – to request his release.

“I gave my word that he was not a spy for Israel,” the Israeli leader said.

In a meeting with the prime minister on Thursday, Tarabin thanked Netanyahu for Israel’s efforts to secure his release, the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement.

Tarabin’s family in July accused Netanyahu of not helping him because he is not Jewish.

Israel and Egypt had negotiated in the past for Tarabin’s release. The issue came to the fore during negotiations in 2011 to secure the release of Israeli-American law student Ilan Grapel, who was held for five months in an Egyptian prison on charges of spying for Israel.

Egypt frees Israeli held for spying in prisoner swap


Egypt has freed an Israeli-Arab held in its jails for 15 years on espionage charges in exchange for the release of two Egyptians held in Israel, Egyptian and Israeli officials said on Thursday.

Uda Tarrabin, originally from a tribe in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, on the border with Israel and the Palestinian Gaza Strip, had been convicted of spying for Israel and had completed his term, Egyptian security sources and state television said.

The Israeli government said Tarrabin was already back in Israel.

“At the same time, Israel released two Egyptian prisoners who were held in Israel and had finished serving their sentences,” it said in a statement.

Neither Israeli nor Egyptian officials would comment on the identity of the Egyptian prisoners.

Russia suspends Egypt flights as Western intelligence backs bomb theory


Russia suspended all passenger flights to Egypt on Friday after a deadly plane crash at the weekend as Western officials said intelligence “chatter” supported the theory that the jet was brought down by a bomb. 

Putin's decision was a response to the crash of an Airbus A321 operated by a Russian carrier on Saturday over Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. All 224 people on board were killed.

British and U.S. spies intercepted “chatter” from suspected militants and at least one other government suggesting that a bomb, possibly hidden in luggage in the hold, downed the airliner, Western intelligence sources said.

The intelligence sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation, said the evidence was not categorical and there was still no hard forensic or scientific evidence to support the bomb theory. 

Britain, which said a bomb planted by an Islamic State affiliate may have caused the crash, Ireland, Germany and the Netherlands, had already suspended regular flights to Sharm al-Sheikh where the downed Russian airliner originated. Turkey said on Friday it was also cancelling flights to the Egyptian resort. 

Russia's decision may be the first sign that Moscow, which launched air strikes against Islamist fighters including Islamic State in Syria more than a month ago, is attaching credibility to the theory that militants put a bomb on the aircraft.

However, the Kremlin said the decision to suspend flights did not mean it thought the crash was caused by a terrorist attack. 

Russia has said it is too early to say what caused the crash and that all theories, including technical failure, should be examined by the official investigation. Egypt has also said it is too early to conclude a blast had brought down the plane. 

Putin acted after Alexander Bortnikov, the head of Russia's FSB security service, recommended that Russia suspend all passenger flights to Egypt until it knew exactly what caused the crash.

“The head of state agreed with these recommendations,” Dmitry Peskov, Putin's spokesman, was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.

He said the government would find a way to bring Russians back home and would open talks with Egyptian authorities to improve flight safety. Peskov later told reporters the suspension would remain in place until such time as the Kremlin was satisfied that security had been sufficiently improved. 

“I think that since Putin made the decision to cancel flights, most likely there is a genuine suspicion that it was a terrorist act. And of course, then it is correct to cancel the flights because it means it is dangerous to fly there,” said Maria Solomatina, 27, an IT consultant who has a ticket to travel to Egypt in mid-November.

A Sinai-based group affiliated with Islamic State, the militants who have seized swathes of Iraq and Syria, has claimed responsibility for the crash, which, if confirmed, would make it the jihadist organization's first attack on civil aviation.

POPULAR DESTINATION

Egypt is one of the most popular holiday destinations for Russians and any decision to suspend flights would cause major logistical problems for Russia's airlines and tourists.

The Russian Travel Industry Union estimated there were around 50,000 Russian tourists currently in Egypt and said refunding canceled tickets to Egypt could bankrupt Russian tour operators, the Interfax news agency reported.

Tourist agency Tez Tour, which estimates it sells about 15 percent of trips to Egypt from Russia, said 10,000 of its Russian clients were in Egypt.

“How are they (the authorities) going to bring people back? If people are at a resort and they come to them to say a plane was sent to take you back, they would say: no, we want to be on holiday for two more weeks, we’re not going anywhere. An evacuation order would be needed,” said Vladimir Kaganer, general director of Tez Tour. 

British attempts to bring home thousands of stranded tourists were thrown into chaos on Friday when Egypt reduced the number of flights it would allow to take them home.

Egypt's Minister of Civil Aviation, Hossam Kamal, said the operation to bring large numbers of British holidaymakers from their hotels to the airport and then put them on flights without their luggage was “a huge burden on the airport because its capacity does not allow for that”.

The fate of Egypt's tourist industry, a vital source of hard currency for a struggling economy, is at stake as well as the credibility of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's claims to have brought under control the militants fighting to topple his government.

The crash has put Egypt's airport security measures in the spotlight.

KLM introduced new security measures on its trips from Cairo to Amsterdam. Passengers will only be allowed to take hand luggage onto the flight, Egyptian airport security sources said on Friday.

Several passengers instead opted to take different flights. KLM Flight 554 left Cairo on Friday morning with only 115 passengers out of its 247 registered ones as a result.

Russian airline: ‘External force’ brought down plane in Sinai


The Russian airplane that crashed in the Sinai was brought down by an “external force,” according to the airline.

Alexander Smirnov, the deputy general director of Kogalymavia airline, also known as Metrojet, told reporters on Monday in Russia that there were no technical failures on the plane, which he said was in excellent condition.

“There is no combination of system failures that could have broken the plane apart in the air,” he said,according to RT.

The airline’s deputy director, Viktor Yung, said the crew appeared to have been disabled before the crash as well.

“As the catastrophic incident started to develop, the crew members were rendered completely incapable,” he said, according to RT. “This explains why they didn’t attempt to contact air traffic and report the incident happening on board.”

The officials appear to be alluding to a bomb or sabotage. All 224 people aboard the plane were killed in Saturday’s crash, including a former program director for Hillel Russia.

The Sinai affiliate of the Islamic State claimed responsibility for bringing down the flight on Saturday, saying it was in retaliation for Russian airstrikes on rebels in Syria’s civil war. Russia’s Transportation Ministry has rejected the claim, saying the group did not offer any evidence as to how it was able to cause the plane to crash.

Egyptian Prime Minister Sharif Ismail said experts do not believe that weapons held by the Islamic State could down a plane at the altitude of the flight when it came down, the BBC reported.

Russian officials had opened an investigation into the crash, looking for gross negligence and safety violations.

U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said that though there is no direct evidence yet of terrorist involvement in the crash, it cannot be ruled out, according to reports.

Jewish group mourns staffer killed in Russian airplane crash


The Jewish student organization Hillel Russia mourned a former program director who died aboard a Russian airliner that crashed in Egypt.

Anna Tishinskaya, 27, was en route from Sharm el-Sheikh to St. Petersburg aboard a charter flight operated by the Russian Kogalymavia airline when it crashed in the Sinai Peninsula on Saturday. All 224 passengers, most of them Russian tourists, died, Egyptian officials said.

Tishinskaya “was part of the family,” even though she no longer worked for Hillel, the group said. “Anya, you were incredibly talented, swift, fearless, sincere, kind and bright. You were a truly extraordinary person,” the statement read.

Tishinskaya graduated from St. Petersburg State University, where she studied history, according to a report on the Russian-language website isrageo.com. She took part in the activities of Hillel Russia and the Israeli Culture Center in St. Petersburg, where she was organizing events as late as 2012.

Radical Islamists claimed responsibility for downing the plane, but security experts said that was unlikely. A plane flying at the altitude at which the Kogalymavia airliner dropped off the radar would be beyond the range of weapons that militants in the area are known to possess, the BBC reported.

Egyptian authorities are working to retrieve the plane’s black box to determine what caused the crash.

Elections in Egypt could begin transition to democracy


This article originally appeared on The Media Line.

Egyptians have gone to the polls in a vote which could show whether the country’s is able to transition towards democracy. Three years after a court disbanded parliament, the north African state will finally elect lawmakers who under the new constitution have the power to hold the president to account. The test will be how willing and how able the members of parliament (MPs) are to stand up to the general-turned-president who has been criticized for his perceived authoritarianism, say analyst here.

President Abdel Fatteh Al-Sisi was voted into power in the summer of 2014, months after he led a coup which removed the country’s first ever democratically elected leader, Mohamed Morsi. Weeks of street protests against the policies of the Muslim Brotherhood-backed president prompted the army to step in and arrest Morsi. Subsequently, Sisi was elected on a mandate to bring stability to Egypt, whose population had grown weary of the ups and downs of the Arab Spring, and to transition the country towards democracy.

But the question remains how meaningful is an election held in the country while the Muslim Brotherhood, the only party to ever have a leader elected by popular mandate in Egypt, languishes as a banned terrorist organization, and are not able to field candidates for office.

“The unprecedented restrictions reduce these elections to being a sheer gesture,” Lina Attalah, chief editor of the independent Egyptian news site Mada Masr, told The Media Line. Increasingly, she said, the actions of the government appear to be worse than those of Hosni Mubarak – who ruled Egypt for thirty years prior to Morsi being elected.

Following Sisi’s coup hundreds of Egyptian were killed and thousands arrested. Courts in the country have been repeatedly criticized for acting under the orders of the president and for arbitrary use of the death penalty. Media freedoms have also been heavily curtailed during Sisi’s rein.

Activists hope that the elections will mark a beginning of an end to such practices. Voting is due to take place in two stages — the first conducted this week and the second round due in December.

“According to the constitution the parliament has the power – but the president also has. So there is a balance,” Ibrahim Awad, a professor at the American University of Cairo and director of the Center for Migration and Refugees Studies, told The Media Line. If parliament is unwilling to exercise this power and simply supports the government, its relevance as a democratic institution will be limited, Awad said.

Egypt created a robust constitution with a strong parliament, one which was understood and widely supported by the population, an observer with a European political organization based in Cairo who asked not to be identified, told The Media Line. However almost as soon as the constitution was ratified, it was ignored by the government, the source said.

“This parliament can do a lot of things, up to the point where it can get rid of the president itself. (However) will the Parliament be strong enough to do this – that is a separate question,” the observer asked.

Media outlets based in Cairo have reported low election turnout, possibly as little as 10%, which contrasts sharply with the attitude of Egyptian youth during the early years of the Arab Spring in 2011 and 2012. At that time, images of student protests in Tahrir Square and long lines outside voting stations were seen as symbolic of the drive towards democracy in the Middle East.

A low turnout now could be a sign of the president’s slipping popularity. Mounting casualties among police and army units engaged in a counter-insurgency campaign in the Sinai Peninsula have cost Sisi politically. In Egypt there is a belief in a connection between military rule and stability, an idea that is encouraged through Sisi’s rhetoric, journalist Lina Attalah explained. Continued instability in the Sinai undermines the president’s image and could be one explanation for low turnout at the polls.

A second possibility is apathy among an electorate who see little choice among the candidates put forward for election. With the Muslim Brotherhood banned, there is little political opposition to Sisi.

“Democracy is about how different points of view can be reconciled,” Ibrahim Awad observed. If the government intends for democracy to truly develop in the country then the structure of its political system will allow a legitimate opposition to develop, the professor said. “(It) should allow these alternative ideas to crystalize and then you can speak of democracy. Until now this has not been the case,” Awad said.

For this reason the next six months will show if the government is committed to democratic transition, Awad explained. 

“Certainly under Mubarak you had a rubber stamp parliament,” he said. “In reality and under the constitution the parliament (then) had less power, so if the (new) parliament exercises the rights and functions that are reserved to it in the constitution it will be democratic.”

Massive gas field discovered in Mediterranean off Egypt’s coast


An Italian energy group said it discovered the largest known natural gas field in the Mediterranean off the Egyptian coast.

The Zohr field could hold 30 trillion cubic feet of gas and covers an area of about 100 square kilometers, or 38.6 square miles, the Eni firm announced Sunday.

The field is significantly larger than Israel’s offshore Leviathan field, estimated to hold 16 trillion to 18 trillion cubic feet of gas, and until now considered the largest gas field in the Mediterranean. A second field, Tamar, which has at least 9 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, is expected to meet Israel’s energy needs for the next 20 years.

Eni said in a statement that the discovery, after its full development, “will be able to ensure satisfying Egypt’s natural gas demand for decades.”

“Zohr is the largest gas discovery ever made in Egypt and in the Mediterranean Sea, and could become one of the world’s largest natural gas finds,” Eni said in the statement.

Following the announcement of the discovery, Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said it should spur Israel to move forward with its plans for its gas reserves.

Earlier this month, Israel announced that it had reached a deal with a consortium of companies over the development of its offshore natural gas fields, but it has not been signed.