Egypt Displays Split Personality on Israel


Israeli leaders were heartened in late December, when Egypt’s
foreign minister announced that he would come to Jerusalem for talks on
promoting Israeli-Palestinian peace.

At the same time, however, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak
was moving in Cairo to galvanize international pressure on Israel to dismantle
the nuclear weapons it is presumed to possess.Â

These seemingly contradictory thrusts in Egyptian policy
highlight the deep ambivalence that has characterized Egypt’s attitude to Israel
since the two countries made peace in 1979.Â

On the one hand, Egypt has been keen to encourage other Arab
countries and the Palestinians to follow its lead in making peace with Israel —
partly to prove that it was right in pioneering accommodation with the Jewish
State, partly to reinforce its position as a major power broker in the Middle
East and partly to satisfy Washington.Â

Some believe that Egypt still is undecided about whether it
really wants peace with Israel. Others believe Egypt simply sees Israel as a
major rival for regional hegemony. In either case, while seeking a wider,
regional rapprochement, Egypt also strives to weaken Israel and keep it
isolated.Â

Egypt therefore makes peace overtures but keeps Israel at
arm’s length. It fashions a model of “cold peace” — some might call it a war
everywhere but on the battlefield — and implies that other Arab countries
should adopt it. It carries out war games in which Israel is the named enemy,
presses every possible button to pressure Israel to dismantle its presumed
nuclear stockpile and often leads the diplomatic charge against Israel in
international forums.Â

For more than 20 years, this ambivalent policy has not
changed. Nor, from Egypt’s perspective, should it, since the policy has paid
rich dividends.Â

First and foremost, it paved the way for Egypt to build
close relations with the United States, including a huge annual aid package
that Egypt has used both to advance domestic goals and to undertake a massive
military reconstruction effort over the past two decades. It also has put Egypt
in a position to help other Arabs, such as the Palestinians or Syrians, forge
negotiations with Israel. Egypt has been trying to play the “honest broker”
over the past year, searching for ways to stop Israeli-Palestinian violence.Â

Since the Palestinian intifada was launched in September
2000, Egypt has worried about violent repercussions at home. Radical Islamic
groups in Egypt could harness anti-Israeli feeling to attack the Mubarak regime
for not doing more to help the Palestinians, conceivably sparking violence
directed at the regime, itself.Â

Last June, Egypt was able to get Palestinian terrorist
groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad to agree to a temporary truce with
Israel. But the truce quickly collapsed after a rash of targeted killings of
terrorist leaders and a new wave of Palestinian suicide bombings.Â

Now the Egyptians are trying again, holding meetings in
Cairo on a new cease-fire and sending Egypt’s intelligence chief, Omar
Suleiman, for talks in the Palestinian territories, so far without concrete
results.

Syrian President Bashar Assad also is seeking Egyptian aid
in paving the way for a renewal of peace talks with Israel. After Saddam
Hussein’s fall in Iraq and Libyan leader Muammar al-Quaddafi’s agreement to open
his weapons programs to international inspection, Assad fears he could be next
in line for special treatment by a U.S. government that has shown little
tolerance for Arab sponsors of terrorism.Â

Assad announced through the pages of The New York Times that
he wants to start a new negotiating process with Israel, and in late December,
he flew to Egypt to ask for Mubarak’s aid.Â

Israel has been skeptical of Assad’s intentions — most
officials believe Assad merely is trying to duck U.S. pressure — but says it is
exploring Assad’s statement. Still, Israel is demanding strong Syrian action
against terrorist groups in Damascus and Lebanon before any talks can begin.Â

While playing the “honest broker,” however, Egypt also has
been leading diplomatic moves against Israel in various international forums.Â

Egypt was active in getting the security fence issue
referred to the International Court at The Hague and, following Libya’s
startling commitment on weapons of mass destruction, Egypt worked closely with
Syria to force a Security Council debate on ridding the Middle East of all
weapons of mass destruction — a debate that is bound to focus primarily on
Israel’s presumed nuclear arsenal.Â

For years, the campaign against Israel’s nuclear capability
has been a cornerstone of Egyptian foreign policy. In 1995, Egypt threatened to
scuttle international reaffirmation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty by
persuading Third World countries not to sign unless Israel did.

Five years later, Egypt repeated the same gambit. In both
cases, however, strong U.S. pressure forced the Egyptians to back down.Â

There is a huge disparity between Egypt’s self-image and the
reality on the ground: The truth is that Egypt no longer seems to have the
clout of a great regional player.Â

For example, when Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher
visited the Al Aksa Mosque on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount in late December,
Palestinian radicals bombarded him with shoes, a display of contempt. And on
that same trip, Egypt heeded Israel’s demand that Maher not meet with
Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, whom Israel seeks to sideline.
Earlier, Palestinian terrorist groups disdainfully rejected Egyptian advice to
accept a cease-fire with Israel.Â

The duality of Egyptian policy leads to suspicion and
anxiety on the Israeli side. One of Egypt’s sharpest Israeli critics is Yuval
Steinitz, chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, who
asked why Egypt needs such a huge, modern army when it has no apparent
enemies.Â

Steinitz noted that Egypt has used huge amounts of U.S.
money to transform its army into one of the strongest forces in the Middle
East, that it has many of the same weapon systems as Israel and that it even
has U.S. instructors to teach the Egyptians how to use the weapons. Of all the
Arab armies, Steinitz said, Egypt’s is the one Israel has to take most
seriously in the future.Â

Perhaps the case that best highlights the ambivalence of
Egyptian policy is the abortive Camp David summit with the Palestinians in July
2000. Fearing that their regional influence would be diluted, the Egyptians
blocked the resumption of multilateral peace talks with Israel on regional
cooperation in the runup to Camp David.Â

Then, as the Camp David summit was about to collapse,
Mubarak turned down a request from President Bill Clinton to do him a personal
favor and pressure Arafat to sign an agreement with Israel that would postpone
disputes over sovereignty of Jerusalem’s holy sites.Â

At the time, U.S. and Israeli officials found Egypt’s
spoiler role unbearable. Yet when fighting erupted two months after the collapse
of Camp David, Egypt played a major role in containing the violence and
preventing a full-scale regional war.Â

Though he pulled Egypt’s ambassador from Israel — a
violation of Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel — Mubarak declared early on that
Egypt “wouldn’t fight to the last Egyptian” for the Palestinian cause. More
than anything else, analysts believe, Mubarak’s levelheaded attitude prevented
the spread of violence across the entire region.

Though Egypt continues to fire diplomatic broadsides at
Israel and refuses to return its ambassador, trumpets its friendship with the
United States while ignoring U.S. calls to democratize and plays the regional
superpower without regional respect, the bottom line is that most feel that
Egypt’s pragmatism remains a powerful, pro-Western force for regional
stability.

However, that stability rests, in large degree, on the
person of Mubarak, a 75-year-old whose health has raised concern recently.
Mubarak had to interrupt a televised speech last month when he suddenly fell
ill.

After 22 years in power, Mubarak has not chosen a successor,
and analysts worry that if Mubarak dies suddenly — he came to power after Anwar
Sadat was assassinated — Egypt will fall into disarray. That could give
Islamists, Mubarak’s most powerful domestic opponents, an opportunity to seize
power and upset the regional stability Mubarak has been so keen to maintain. Â

+