Israel’s “cold peace” with Egypt has seen a dramatic thaw in recent weeks.
After more than a decade in which there was little of the normalization promised in the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has reportedly told his senior military staff, “We are now moving toward full peace and normal relations with Israel.”
The changed attitude has been manifest in the signing of cultural and scientific agreements between the two countries; in a decision to lay a direct phone link between the two countries; and in the arrival in Israel of hundreds of Egyptian tourists.
Cairo’s new warmth is significant, because the limits of the Israeli-Egypt peace have been cited by opponents of Israel’s present peace negotiations as evidence that true peace with Israel’s Arab neighbors is only a mirage.
According to one Israeli who has participated in the thaw, the Egyptians are not unaware of this argument.
“I think they realize the peace treaty with Israel has been too formal for too long, and if they are to gain the confidence of the Israeli public in the peace treaty with Egypt and whole peace process, they better warm it up,” said Uri Bar-Ner, Israel’s deputy foreign minister in charge of scientific and cultural affairs.
Bar-Ner also suggested that Mubarak wanted to send a message to the Syrians and Palestinians that peace agreements with Israel involve more than just formal ties.
In January, Bar-Ner signed an agreement with his Egyptian counterpart providing for cultural exchanges. Thirty-two specific projects were listed in an addendum to the agreement, which was ratified this month during a state visit to Cairo by Shulamit Aloni, Israel’s minister of communications, arts, science and technology.
“It’s very significant because Egypt has had a major problem developing cultural agreements with Israel, because Egyptian artists and societies were very reluctant to have any contact with Israel, because they would be boycotted by rest of Arab world,” said Bar-Ner.
It was issues of the broader Arab-Israeli conflict that froze the Egyptian- Israeli peace almost from its beginning, at least from the perspective of Cairo.
Egypt withdrew its ambassador from Tel Aviv during the Lebanon War in 1982, which began only two months after Israel completed its withdrawal from the Sinai. The ambassador returned following a summit between Mubarak and then- Prime Minister Shimon Peres in 1986, but the Egyptians cited the Palestinian issue as a bar to fuller relations.
“It vindicated what some of us have been saying all along, that there is an inherent connection between Israel’s peace-process policy and the bilateral relations between Israel and Egypt,” said another Foreign Ministry official.
“For a long time the Egyptians did not want to improve their bilateral relations with Israel, since they felt Israel was not adhering to its commitments to the peace process,” said the official.
According to a report from Egypt by the Israeli newspaper Yediot Achronot, Mubarak told his military staff that “the era of cold peace is over” and that he was encouraging full business cooperation with Israelis, including a possible sale of natural gas.
“There is no reason that Arab states without formal relations with Israel should sell her natural gas, while we have a surplus and nobody to sell to,” Mubarak was quoted as saying, referring to reports that the Gulf emirate of Qatar is embarking on such a sale.
According to the newspaper account, Mubarak also met with the editors of the Egyptian press to inform them of the new line. Editorials concerning “the new honeymoon” with Israel soon followed.
How fully the Egyptian media adopts a changed attitude toward Israel may be the most significant question in evaluating Israeli-Egyptian ties.
“The real poison in the relationship is the way the Egyptian media has described us,” said the Israeli official.
But while it is too soon to say whether the desired media shift has come about, it is clear that, in many small but significant ways, the Egyptian government is implementing its announced policy of normalization.
Egypt has dropped a requirement that would-be visitors to Israel register with the military officials, a regulation that kept tourism effectively nil. Since that change in regulations, dozens of tourists are passing daily through the Taba border crossing, many on group pilgrimages to Muslims or Coptic Christian holy places.
Two Egyptian translators of Hebrew literature into Arabic appeared at an international translation conference held in Israel in January – the first time, according to Bar-Ner, that an Egyptian writer or translator dared appeared in an Israeli forum that would receive world-wide publicity.
One of the translators made a side trip to present writer Amos Oz with the first Arabic translation of one of his novels.
Among the agreements formalized during Aloni’s visit to Cairo is one to lay a direct phone link between the tow countries, whose phone connections now pass through Rome. This would also bring Israel’s phone network closer to the other Arab countries and Egypt’s to the republics of the Common wealth of Independent States.
The Egyptian education minister agreed to allow Israeli archaeologists to participate in digs in the Sinai.
It was also agreed that Israel would carry out underwater research with Egypt, in which scientists from Saudi Arabia Jordan would work as well under Egyptian auspices.
In addition, Egyptian educators and computer experts will come to Israel to study a unique program to teach reading that was developed by the Center for Educational Technology in Ramat Aviv.
And before leaving Cairo, Aloni announced that her visit will be reciprocated by her three Egyptian counterparts, the ministers of communications, of science, and of education.
These would be the first such visits in a decade.