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December 3, 2000 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 44

Changes in Egyptian Policy Towards Israel

December 3, 2000 | By Yotam Feldner*
Egypt | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 44

Egyptian President Mubarak's decision to recall Egypt's Ambassador to Israel, Muhammad Bassyuni, marked a turning point in Egyptian policy. President Mubarak continues, nevertheless, to state unequivocally that he is not heading towards war and that peace is Egypt's strategic option. At the same time, however, the Egyptian leadership has toughened its positions regarding the cessation of violence beween the Palestinians and Israelis, and escalated its rhetoric against Israel.

From Sponsoring Stability to Pressuring Israel

Until recently, Egypt acted publicly to end the violence in the territories and pressure on Israel, to reestablish stability, and to facilitate the resumption of the negotiations. The Egyptian efforts in this direction culminated in hosting the Sharm Al-Sheik summit. However, the Sharm Al-Sheik understandings were not implemented and the violence escalated. The attack on a school bus near Kfar Darom and the Israeli retaliation against the Palestinian security apparatuses ended the chance for restored stability. Egypt renounced the Sharm Al-Sheik security understandings and shifted its emphasis to political pressure on Israel.

This significant change in Egypt's approach was evident after the November 26 meeting in Cairo between President Mubarak and PM Barak's advisor, Danny Yatom. Following the meeting, Egypt's Foreign Minister, Amru Mussa, said, "Yatom came to us with security oriented ideas, when he should have spoken about politics." Mussa made it clear that Egypt no longer attaches significance to the security understandings reached at Sharm Al-Sheik: "Israel is still stuck in the Sharm Al-Sheik understandings and in its security clauses," explained Mussa, "but this whole matter has fallen apart. Even the Oslo Accords have become obsolete. This is what Israel must understand."[1]

President Mubarak continues to declare that war is not an option and that peace is Egypt's strategic choice.[2] However, in regard to Israel, Egypt has adopted a "cold war"-like policy.

Statements by Egyptian officials indicate that the return of the Egyptian ambassador to Israel is contingent not only on security conditions but also on political conditions. "Israel will have to pay a price for the return of the Egyptian ambassador to Tel Aviv," wrote the editor of Egypt's preeminent newspaper, the government sponsored Al-Ahram, Ibrahim Nafi'. "At the very least [Israel] must: cease aggression, withdraw its forces, prove its serious intent to implement the agreements and understandings that have been reached in the past, make Confidence Building Measures toward the Palestinians, remove the siege, open the borders, allow the entrance of food and medicine, allow the exit of injured Palestinians for treatment, and agree to [an] international protection [force] for the Palestinians, and after that resume negotiations according to the international resolutions."[3]

Ambassador Bassyuni, in his first interview after returning to Cairo, stated three conditions for his return to Israel: Israel should stop using force, resumption of negotiations must be based on Resolutions 242 and 338, and Israel "should be taking steps to rebuild confidence. Egypt's strategy of a comprehensive, lasting, just and balanced peace will be realized with the implementation of the principle of land for peace. Words are not enough. What is important is their implementation on the ground."[4] Bassyuni's statement was couched in diplomatic language, but it revealed the essence of the Egyptian demand: Israel should unequivocally commit itself to Security Council Resolution 242. The Editor of the government affiliated daily Al-Gumhuriya, Samir Ragab, expressed the same position: "The clever ones among the Israelis," he wrote, "must clearly recognize the principle of land for peace." He added, "Only then will they be rewarded with peace and will their cries and tears over their dead, killed by the stones of the young Palestinian heroes, subside."[5]

Escalation in Anti-Israel Rhetoric

The earlier praise by Egypt's government-sponsored press for President Mubarak's moderation and restraint has given way to harsh attacks on Israel and its government. For example, Akhbar Al-Youm Editor, Sa'id Sunbul¸ wrote in his daily column that, "Barak is no different from Hitler. Hitler was a racist who thought that the German nation was the master of all nations and that it must rule the world with steel and fire. Barak, in turn, believes that the Jewish people are the 'Chosen People' and that if one of them falls, whether killed or injured, the price is dozens of Palestinians."[6]

In the independent press, the approach has become even more militant. Editor of the weekly Al-Maydan, Issam Al-Ghazi, for example, advocated the use of unconventional weapons against Israel: "Even though Israel has nuclear weapons, it cannot use them against the Palestinian Resistance. On the other hand, the Resistance can obtain weapons that are even stronger, meaning, biological and chemical weapons -- the atomic bomb of the poor."

Al-Ghazi referred his readers to the book Biological and Chemical Weapons Between War, Intelligence and Terror by Dr. Abd Al-Hadi Musbah, the introduction to which was written by President Mubarak's close advisor, Ussama Al-Baz. Al-Ghazi suggests the book in order "to benefit from the ideas and the scientific facts presented in the book. The Palestinian Resistance can obtain such weapons for its battle against the enemy at a minimal cost. Seventeen countries in the world - above all the US, Israel and Russia - have such weapons. Despair may encourage the Palestinian Resistance to inject, for example, one hundred mice with the 'Super Plague' virus, which can be purchased with a Visa card at the Maryland Center for Virology, or from the Russian laboratories. These mice could be released in the streets of Tel Aviv. Likewise, a small bottle of Plague-infected mosquitoes can be used to destroy entire Israeli cities and Israeli military camps. The desperate Palestinians will not pity them. 'My soul will die with my enemy, ' he will say. He knows that he is destined to be killed [anyway] by their bullets and their missiles, and therefore will choose to die and take with him thousands of murderous Israelis."[7]

Escalation in Anti-American Rhetoric

The change in the tone of the Egyptian press is also evident in the approach towards the United States. Before the decision to recall the Egyptian ambassador from Tel Aviv, the Egyptian leadership emphasized the differences between Arab states that have a peace agreement with Israel and those with informal connections with Israel. This distinction was made in the Arab summit decisions in Cairo, which did not demand that Egypt and Jordan cut off their relations with Israel. The Egyptian fear was that Israel would consider the recall of the Egyptian ambassador as a violation of the treaty and would turn to "international courts", as Mubarak's advisor, Ussama Al-Baz explained in an interview in the Lebanese daily Al-Mustaqbal.[8] Al-Baz referred to the possibility that Israel would conspire in Washington to obstruct American aid to Egypt, claiming that the American-Egyptian dialogue is based on Egypt's commitment to the Camp David Accords.

Now, Al-Ahram's Editor, Ibrahim Nafi', explained that while peace continues to be Egypt's strategic option - "the condition is that we talk about a just and comprehensive peace." In other words, the Egyptian commitment to the Camp David Accords now depends on the political process on the Palestinian and maybe even the Syrian track as well. Nafi' elaborated saying, "Israel was wrong to think that Egypt's adherence to peace... meant that Egypt would refrain from reevaluating [its position] when necessary, or that it would not act in the future in accordance with its Arab commitments, which superseded all other commitments."[9] The position of the Egyptian regime, which was echoed in the local press about a month ago, and which meant that the peace accords with Israel were prior to any contradictory Arab agreements, no longer exists.

Editors of the Egyptian press, who a month ago explained to the Egyptian public the negative consequences in Washington of an Egyptian decision to recall its Ambassador to Tel Aviv, have now found it necessary to discuss relations with the US. It seems that the unforeseen difficulties in the election of the next American President, as well as the Clinton Administration's lowering of its profile in regard to the Middle East Crisis, prompted the Egyptian government-sponsored press to escalate its anti-American rhetoric.

Al-Akhbar Editor, Galal Dweidar¸ for example, stated that Israel should not be blamed for the crimes committed by the "neo-nazis" in its military, since Israel is merely "a puppet" operated by the US. "The ones who are responsible are the rulers of Washington who nourish Israel with weapons and money, and insist on preventing International Legitimacy from taking any action against it."[10]

The government-sponsored press also referred to the possible danger to American aid to Egypt. The conclusion reached by columnists and commentators was that this consideration should not influence Egyptian policy. Al-Gumhuriya Editor, Samir Ragab wrote, "We need not emphasize once again that we don't count too much on that aid, because we, thank God, base our economy on solid foundations... The Americans know very well that Cairo's principles are not for sale and that there is no chance that we will change for a fistful of dollars."[11]

Another noticeable change was in the attitude of the press towards the "popular boycott" on Israeli and especially American products. With the outbreak of the Intifada, rioting demonstrators attacked American and "Jewish" businesses. The leaders of the boycott published a list of products that "Muslims will not die if they don't buy them." The list included products like Pepsi, whose initials, it was claimed, stood for "Pay Every Penny to Save Israel."[12]

The Egyptian establishment felt, at the time, that damaging American businesses and boycotting American products might have negative repercussions on the economic relations with the US. Now, however, the fear is gone, and senior columnists have expressed their support for boycotting American products. Thus, for example, wrote Dr. Hassan Ragab in the daily Al-Akhbar: "The popular initiative to boycott Israeli and American products must turn into a national Arab flood." Ragab recommended that the boycott be expanded to include other states that support Israel like Germany, and especially "Siemens."[13]

Conclusion

In the past month, there were several changes in Egyptian policy. The Egyptian initiative to end the violence, in accordance with the Sharm Al-Sheik understandings, was replaced by a demand that Israel should pay a high political price for ending the violence. Now, at least publicly, Cairo is declaring that it is not prepared to use its influence to stop the violence, unless Israel becomes more flexible in its political positions.

Likewise, the fear of undermining Egypt's relations with the US, which until a month ago, was the primary factor preventing Egypt from taking more extreme steps against Israel, became less effective. There is no doubt that the voices coming from Washington, and the indecision about the US Presidency, had a role in bringing about this change. The Egyptian leadership found an opportunity to carry out a significant political step to pressure Israel without suffering any immediate repercussions in its relations with the US.

It is likely that the anti-American rhetoric will subside once the next American president is finally declared. Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that the Egyptian ambassador will return to Israel any time soon, as long as Israel is unready to pay a political price to the Palestinians for the cessation of violence.

*Yotam Feldner is MEMRI's Director of Media Analysis.


[1] Al-Safir (Lebanon), November 27, 2000

[2] Al-Ahram (Egypt), November 29, 2000

[3] Al-Ahram (Egypt), November 23, 2000

[4] Al-Ahram (Egypt), November 29, 2000

[5] Al-Gumhuriya (Egypt), November 27, 2000

[6] Al-Akhbar (Egypt), November 22, 2000

[7] Al-Maydan (Egypt), November 27, 2000

[8] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), November 24, 2000

[9] Al-Ahram (Egypt), November 23, 2000

[10] Al-Akhbar (Egypt), November 23, 2000

[11] Al-Gumhuriya (Egypt), November 24, 2000

[12] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), October 31, 2000

[13] Al-Akhbar (Egypt), November 28, 2000

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