Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak may be the first Arab leader invited to George W. Bush’s White House, but American Jewish leaders are making sure his visit is no honeymoon.
While Mubarak will try to convince U.S. officials this week that Egypt should be allowed a larger role in Middle East peace efforts, he faces sharp criticism from some Jewish leaders who say Egyptian policies and behavior do little to advance peace in the region, and often hinder it.
Mubarak’s visit comes days after the Anti-Defamation League released a report blasting the rampant anti-Semitism in Egypt’s state-controlled media, including fierce attacks on Jews and Judaism and cartoon figures with distorted Jewish features that critics say would not have been out of place in Nazi Germany.
“These caricatures are as ugly as they were in the ’30s,” ADL National Director Abraham Foxman said. “We are calling for President Mubarak to speak out.”
Foxman recently called for $100 million in U.S. aid to Egypt — of an annual total of roughly $2 billion — to be held in escrow until its government condemns such anti-Semitic practices.
At the same time as Mubarak refuses to set foot in Israel — he has not visited the Jewish state in his two decades as president except to attend Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral — the Egyptian establishment takes pains to squelch the few voices advocating normalization with Israel.
The provocations range from the petty — such as refusing to fly the Israeli flag during Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in Taba last winter — to the egregious, such as last week’s article in the government daily Al-Akhbar supporting the age-old slander that Jews add Gentile blood to their Passover matzahs.
In addition, Israeli officials in recent years have warned of Egypt’s massive military build-up and its army exercises based on scenarios of war against Israel.
Executives from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations decided to boycott a Wednesday luncheon in Mubarak’s honor that will be hosted by Arab and Jewish groups.
“This is not the occasion to honor him,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents. “It’s time for a serious dialogue with him.”
Hoenlein said he was concerned the event would allow Mubarak to say he met with Jewish leaders, without having to face tough questioning on Mideast violence and Egyptian anti-Semitism.
A spokesman for the luncheon organizers said the event will “provide a platform to hear what Mubarak has to say,” adding that the description of the event as being in Mubarak’s honor is a “diplomatic nicety.”
Event organizers would question Mubarak in a closed-door session before the speech, the spokesman said.
As the first Arab country to sign a formal peace treaty with Israel and as a relative moderate in the Arab world, Egypt long has been considered a key U.S. ally. Mubarak has cultivated the relationship, visiting Washington every year since he took office after the death of Anwar Sadat in 1981.
Mubarak is seeking to use that status, as well as his influence as a close advisor to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, to carve out a bigger role for Egypt in Mideast peace efforts.
A senior White House official said Bush on Monday encouraged Mubarak to use his influence in the region to improve the situation and urge a reduction of violence, which Mubarak pledged to do.
At the same time, Egypt also wants the United States to take a more forceful stance in breaking the Israeli- Palestinian impasse.
Bush on Monday denied that his administration is less involved in Mideast peace efforts than was President Clinton’s. The White House official said Bush is consulting with key regional parties about ways to move forward in negotiations once violence subsides.
“It’s important for us to build strong relationships with countries such as Egypt and Jordan, and other countries in the Middle East who have got a stake in peace,” Bush said after meeting with Mubarak. “But we will remain very actively engaged. And, hopefully, there will be positive results.”
Mubarak is considered a close advisor to and the strongest diplomatic influence on Arafat.
As violence in the region continues, however, Mubarak is subtly distancing itself from the Palestinians and trying to be more helpful on the international front, said Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum.
Mubarak’s “role has shifted,” Pipes said. “When the prospect is one of war and not peace, they have woken up to the real dangers.”
Egypt attempted to exert itself in the Middle East peace process during the Clinton administration, but some are not convinced the country still has as much influence in the region as it once did.
“Mubarak has been influential in a limited tactical sense,” said David Wurmser, director of Middle East Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “But broadly, Egypt has been unable to shift policy in the region for a long time.”
Egypt long has sought to maintain a delicate balance, keeping Israel at arms’ length — and sometimes, critics say, even obstructing other countries’ peace efforts in order to guard Egyptian primacy as an American ally — while not allowing Palestinian-Israeli violence to engulf the whole Mideast.
Now, however, American Jewish leaders and lawmakers are demonstrating their frustration with Egypt.
Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), ranking minority member of the House International Relations Committee, said last week that aid to Egypt should be shifted from a military to an economic basis because Egypt faces no real military threat.
Lantos said last month that he was not advocating a cut in funds to Egypt, but that having two-thirds of Egypt’s aid package go to military uses was “no longer appropriate under present circumstances.’
“The people of Egypt deserve our help, and what they need is economic help, not high-tech weaponry,” Lantos said at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference.
In an interview in the Washington Post on Sunday, Mubarak argued for the military aid.
“You never know what’s going to happen in this part of the world,” he said.
Patrick Clawson, research director for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Mubarak may ultimately “pay a price domestically” for U.S. assistance.
Some experts say that U.S. pressure on Mubarak could bring results. If he does come out against Palestinian policies, for example, it may be easiest for Mubarak to tell domestic critics that his stance is a result of unbearable pressure placed on him by the United States, including the threat of aid restrictions.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.