News Analysis: Crisis in Relations with Egypt Could Herald New Trend in Ties
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News Analysis: Crisis in Relations with Egypt Could Herald New Trend in Ties

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Israeli President Ezer Weizman stepped in this week in an effort to halt a dangerous deterioration in relations with Egypt.

In a personal telephone call to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Weizman urged the Egyptian leader to help turn things around.

“We mustn’t let the peace between us turn cold,” Weizman declared.

According to Israeli sources, Weizman’s move is likely to be followed by a direct meeting between Mubarak and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in the near future.

Before that takes place, Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin is scheduled to fly to Cairo on Sunday for two days of high-level talks in which he, too, will seek to ease the tensions that have developed in the relationship between the two countries.

The latest in a chain of awkward incidents between the two governments occurred last weekend, when Egyptian Foreign Minister Amre Moussa convened a news briefing in Cairo to condemn certain unnamed Israeli Foreign Ministry officials as “retards.”

Moussa was reacting to a leaked report in Israel of a policy paper prepared by the ministry’s research and analysis unit advising “punishment” of Egypt for its diplomatic hostility toward Israel.

In Jerusalem, Moussa’s words were taken as a deliberate and serious escalation in the war of words, and it elicited sharp, though anonymous expressions of anger and contempt from ministry staffers.

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Beilin publicly rejected the policy paper.

But Beilin insisted on the unit’s right to draft such a paper and blamed the unknown sources who leaked it for fomenting the trouble with Egypt.

This is not the first time that the research and analysis unit, under Harry Knei-Tal, embarrassed the ministry. Last November after the Republicans won stunning victories in the U.S. congressional elections, the unit leaked a policy paper in which it virtually wrote off President Clinton as an unsalvageable lame duck.

The latest paper, regarding Egypt, reflects a long-standing feeling both among Israeli diplomats abroad and officials at home that Egyptian diplomacy is hostile toward the Jewish state.

Among the examples used to illustrate Cairo’s frosty attitude toward Israel: – Israeli diplomats have detected an Egyptian influence – despite Cairo’s denials – in decisions made by various Muslim states in Asia and Africa to slow down their steps toward normalization of relations with Israel. – At a recent summit conference in Alexandria, Mubarak, along with King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, was widely believed to have acceded to Syrian President Hafez Assad’s urging that Arab countries, too, slow the pace of their normalization with Israel until Syria concludes a peace treaty with the Israelis. – In the wake of that tripartite gathering, Gulf states such as Oman and Qatar, which had previously indicated they would establish diplomatic relations with Israel, are now signaling they will delay any move. – Egypt has been in the forefront of an Arab and Third World demand that Israel sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which comes up for renewal this year.

Dismissing all of Israel’s arguments and explanations about why it needs a non- conventional deterrent capability, Egypt has gone so far as to threaten that unless Israel signs on to the international treaty, Egypt will not renew its own signature.

As Israeli officials see it, Egypt’s campaign on this delicate issue is attracting widespread sympathy among both non-aligned and Western nations.

Moreover, it is weakening Israel’s own international campaign to warn about the dangers of Iran’s persistent efforts to acquire or build a nuclear capacity.

For its part, Egypt has taken umbrage over statements by Israeli political and military leaders, including some by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, about the possibility of a future war pitting Israel against some or all of the states in the region.

Mubarak was reported to have voiced his resentment about these statements, and about the leaked Foreign Ministry policy paper during his telephone conversation with Weizman.

The Israeli president, for his part, reportedly recalled the “wonderful reception he had been accorded during a recent state visit to Egypt. He called for further top-level meetings in the near future to ensure that misunderstandings are cleared before they fester.

Looking beyond the present spate of unpleasantness, some observers here suggest that the current relationship between Israel and Egypt, which signed their historic peace treaty in 1979, is a realistic indicator of things to come in terms of peace treaties with other Arab states.

On the one hand, the clauses of the peace treaty with Egypt have largely been scrupulously adhered to – especially the security provisions. The formal provisions relating to diplomatic, commercial and cultural exchanges have also been observed by both sides.

But there is little “warmth” in the peace, as evidenced by the fact that Egyptian tourists hardly flock to Tel Aviv.

A similar “cold peace” is probably the best that can be expected, these observers say, in any future accord with Syria and Lebanon.

In the words of one leading analyst, these peace agreements are being concluded between vastly disparate societies – with Israel’s advanced, industrialized society reaching out to Third World Arab societies. It would be naive, therefore, to expect a quick or easy spanning of civilizations.

Even the peace with Jordan, infused as it is with the personal warmth and enthusiasm of King Hussein and Rabin, is experiencing problems of “coolness.”

The two leaders met late last week in an effort to expedite post-treaty negotiations and breathe more life into their recently normalized relations.

There are few Israelis today who would argue that the peace with Egypt has not been worthwhile, even though it may be a cold peace.

For one thing, not a single soldier has died in battle on the southern front since peace was established.

And after all, even France and Germany, the proverbial enemies-turned-allies who are bound together in the European Union, often differ, and even argue, since major differences of outlook and national interest remain.

In a way, say these observers, a relationship of military peace, formal civilian ties and periodic diplomatic tensions is probably the most normal kind of “normalization” that can be expected from the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty.

Likewise, they say, it is probably the best that Israel can achieve in any future treaties it signs with other Arab neighbors. It is better to accept these limited successes, according to these observers, than to create false expectations among the Israeli public.

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