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News Analysis: Egypt Displays Two Faces in Latest Dealings with Israel

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For months now, Egypt has been conducting a double- faced diplomatic strategy.

In its dealings with the Arab world, where it wants to preserve its dominant status, Cairo is aggressive toward Israel.

In the delicate negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians over the long- delayed redeployment in Hebron, for example, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak keeps telling Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat not to show any flexibility.

The hard-line stance also serves domestic interests, since Egypt has a sizable fundamentalist opposition to keep at bay.

With this in mind, Mubarak tolerates an Egyptian media that has grown increasingly abusive toward Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, frequently comparing him to Hitler.

The Egyptian newspaper Al-Mussawar, for example, recently said of Netanyahu, “His comments are disgusting and his odor stinks,” adding that he heads a “country of plastic that would have collapsed without American protection.”

But Egypt sometimes presents a milder face.

When dealing with the world at large, particularly the United States — from which Egypt gets $2.1 billion in annual aid — Egypt strives to maintain its image as a stable middle-of-the-road country that blocks negative trends in the region.

The two faces of Egypt, on repeated display since Netanyahu was elected in May, were apparent most recently in connection with the weekend meeting of the 22- nation Arab League in Cairo.

In the days leading up to Sunday’s meeting, Mubarak warned that Israel’s policy of settlement expansion was posing a threat to Middle East peace.

Mubarak likewise blamed Netanyahu for the delay in reaching an agreement for implementing the Hebron redeployment.

But it was also Egypt that blocked a Syrian proposal that Arab nations suspend all relations with the Jewish state.

Instead, the session ended with the group’s ambassadors issuing a relatively mild statement saying that Israeli plans to expand existing settlements could “torpedo the peace process.”

On a harsher note, Esmat Abdel-Meguid, the Egyptian secretary-general of the league, called on the U.N. Security Council to impose sanctions on Israel for its settlement policy.

Also on the U.N. front, Egypt is co-sponsoring a resolution that is sharply critical of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people.

The resolution, which is expected to be submitted shortly to the U.N. General Assembly, calls for “restitution and full compensation” to the Palestinian people for the “exploitation by Israel, the occupying Power, of the natural resources of the occupied Palestinian territory, including Jerusalem, and other Arab territories occupied by Israel since 1967.”

This, combined with other recent developments among Arab countries, prompted Israeli intelligence sources to state this week that they have identified “an orchestrated effort to isolate Israel in the world.”

Despite the sharp criticisms of Israel emanating from Cairo, the Egyptian ambassador to Israel, Mohammed Basiouny, said in a recent interview that there was nothing “less than normal or more than normal” in Israeli-Egyptian relations.

There was nothing especially surprising about his comment. Egypt, the first Arab country with which Israel forged a peace treaty, has always appeared content with maintaining little more than a “cold peace” with the Jewish state.

Just the same, Sunday’s meeting of the Arab League was only the latest in a series of escalating tensions between Israel and Egypt.

Last week, Mubarak sent a message to Netanyahu warning that the peace agreements already signed may be jeopardized by his policies.

He also blamed Netanyahu’s government for the deterioration in the normalization process between Israel and the Arab world.

Meanwhile, Basiouny denied rumors that Egypt might recall him to protest the stalemate in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

The tensions with Egypt have provoked mixed reactions in Israel.

Uzi Landau, the hawkish chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, attacked Mubarak, charging that he was responsible for a policy “designed to belittle Israel.”

Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai met with Basiouny this week and urged Egypt to cool its attacks against Israel and to act as a “bridge” between Israel and the Arab parties to the peace process.

The strained relations with Egypt — and, by extension, with much of the Arab world — have fueled speculation in Israel’s political community that a national unity government may soon be formed. Ariel Sharon, Israel’s minister of national infrastructure, visited the home of Labor leader Shimon Peres on Sunday night, and sources close to the two did not deny that they had discussed the subject.

Although much of the current tensions in the region stem from the stalemate over Hebron, a resolution of that issue is not likely to improve the situation.

After Hebron there will be an even higher hurdle to clear: the permanent-status talks.

Those talks will involve the most difficult issues separating Israel and the Palestinians, including the future status of Jerusalem and the question of Palestinian statehood.

In that context, this week’s Arab League meeting was perhaps a harbinger of more difficult times ahead.

Arab foreign ministers were expected to discuss further the Syrian demand for a freeze on the normalization process with Israel at a meeting this week in Jakarta, Indonesia.

While Egypt is putting the breaks on more extreme measures in the Arab world for now, the time may come when Egypt will not want — or be able — to moderate tempers.

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