WASHINGTON, April 4 (JTA) — Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak told a group of American Jewish and American Arab leaders this week that he had repeatedly spoken out against anti-Semitic cartoons in the Egyptian media but would not make a new public appeal to stop them, Jewish leaders told JTA.
Mubarak was candid in Wednesday’s meeting, the Jewish leaders said, but did not offer satisfactory responses on issues important to the Jewish community, including the recall of Egypt’s ambassador to Israel and Egypt’s role in promoting Israeli-Palestinian peace.
“I wouldn’t say there was no value” in the meeting, said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, the executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and an organizer of Wednesday’s event. “Anybody who assumed that today would be some kind of mea culpa or an epiphany is absurd.”
“He was very frank and very honest,” Epstein said. “He was willing to engage in a dialogue.”
Wednesday’s private session took place before Mubarak attended a luncheon with a broader group of American Jewish and American Arab leaders.
Mubarak also told the private meeting that he had received assurances from President Bush that the United States would play a role in improving Israeli-Palestinian relations.
Hyman Bookbinder, a longtime Jewish activist in Washington, pressed Mubarak repeatedly on the issue of the anti-Semitic cartoons. While nominally free, Egyptian media is under a large measure of government control.
However, Mubarak “was not prepared” to make a public appeal against anti-Semitic material in the press, and “suggested that it would be inappropriate,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the Reform movement’s congregational arm.
At the end of the meeting, Mubarak gave Bookbinder, the former Washington representative of the American Jewish Committee, a report of allegedly anti-Egyptian comments in the Israeli media, and asked why U.S. Jews do not criticize such comments from Israeli officials.
Yoffie said Mubarak said he had “no choice but to respond to strong public opinion” in Egypt by removing his ambassador to Israel in November.
Mubarak added that the ambassadorial recall has not harmed communication between Israel and Egypt and said the ambassador would return as soon as violence subsides.
In his speech at the luncheon, Mubarak stressed the United States’ key role in the Middle East. The United States, not the United Nations, should be the “main player” in the region, he said.
“The problem will never be solved if the United States said, ‘hands off,’ ” he said. “The president said that he is going to continue. I told him we are ready to help as well as we can.”
Mubarak also called on Israelis and Palestinians — who are both descendants of Abraham, he emphasized — to overcome their differences.
“Both sides must believe and concede that their rights and obligations are equal,” he said. “A just and comprehensive settlement to the dispute should not reflect the military might or the ability of either to dictate to the
other; it should stem from genuine acceptance of both sides.”
Mubarak called for an end to “all forms of suppression of Palestinian people,” saying Palestinians cannot live in their current conditions and are desperate.
“What do you expect them to do?” he asked, referring to the current violence.
The Egyptian president called the meeting of Arab and Jewish leaders “historic” and invited a joint delegation to the Middle East to meet with youth, intellectuals and officials.
Mubarak also said he would visit Israel “when everything is going well.” In 20 years in power, he has refused all invitations to visit Israel, except to attend the funeral of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.
The luncheon was sponsored by an ad-hoc coalition of Arab and Jewish American leaders, though the precise sponsors were not identified. Controversy swirled around the event in recent weeks, with leaders of several Jewish organizations criticizing the idea of honoring Mubarak, who they feel often plays an obstructionist role in the peace process.
David Ivry, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, did not attend the event, but event organizers and the Israeli embassy denied an Israel Radio report that the ambassador was boycotting the luncheon.
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