Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Mubarak Meets Jewish Leaders, but Questions Remain After Talk

April 15, 2004
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

It was supposed to be a chance for Egypt’s president to promote his country’s commitment to peace and tolerance. But not everyone came away convinced.

Following his meeting with President Bush on Monday, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak met with 22 American Jewish leaders Wednesday in Houston.

The meeting came following a request from Mubarak to the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. JCPA convened leaders of groups like Hadassah, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, American Jewish Committee, Americans for Peace Now and representatives of local communities for the hour-long meeting.

Not everyone bought Mubarak’s portrayal Egypt as an exemplar of moderation that is committed to regional peace, but they still found the meeting useful.

In today’s polarized political climate, “wherever there can be voices of moderation and moves that encourage simple dialogue they should be embraced,” said Hannah Rosenthal, JCPA’s executive director.

Mubarak asked for the meeting because he wanted to portray his position vis-a- vis Israel, Rosenthal said, and “wants us to raise the questions that are on our minds.”

There were plenty.

Jewish leaders pressed Mubarak to fight anti-Semitism in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world, nurture the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and help secure the Gaza Strip after a planned Israeli withdrawal.

The meeting wasn’t the first time the Egyptian president has met with American Jewish leaders — in fact, it’s a regular occurrence.

Mubarak “views us as an important political constituency,” Rosenthal said.

Mubarak said a stronger economy would help the Middle East, and asked the leaders to “encourage the United States on economic plans and trade agreements,” Rosenthal said.

Since the United States brokered the 1979 Camp David peace accords between Egypt and Israel, it has given some $2 billion a year to Egypt, making it the second-largest recipient of U.S. aid after Israel.

Wednesdays’ meeting was part of a flurry of diplomatic developments with Egypt surrounding Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to withdraw from Gaza.

In Mubarak’s meeting Monday with President Bush, talk of the Gaza withdrawal took center stage. The two voiced support for the withdrawal in the context of the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan.

On Wednesday, as Mubarak met with the Jewish leaders, Sharon and Bush held a White House press conference in which Bush gave the Israeli prime minister wide backing.

Calling Sharon’s intended withdrawal “historic and courageous,” Bush also dismissed Palestinian refugees’ demand for a “right of return” to homes in Israel that they left in 1948, saying refugees should be settled in a Palestinian state.

Bush also voiced support for Israeli annexation of large settlement blocs close to its pre-1967 border.

In his meetings with Jewish leaders, Mubarak said Egypt would not provide troops to aid an Israeli withdrawal, but would train Palestinian Authority police for the task.

He also said a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza would lead to chaos, and that he would support a withdrawal only if it came in coordination with the Palestinian Authority.

That struck June Walker, president of Hadassah, as strange.

“With whom you negotiate, I don’t know,” she said.

“Do you speak with Arafat?” she asked rhetorically. “There’s no real leader.”

Walker also took issue with Mubarak’s recommendation that Hamas join the Palestinian Authority, which he presented as a streamlining of Palestinian forces.

And though she brought a stack of clips showing anti-Semitic propaganda in Egypt’s state-sponsored media, Mubarak claimed to be unaware of such material, Walker said.

Mubarak said he planned to combat anti-Semitism, and that democracy in Egypt was a “work in progress,” Rosenthal said.

The Bush administration has been unusually critical of the lack of democracy in Egypt.

The Jewish leaders praised Mubarak’s initiative in calling the meeting.

“Without a dialogue, we’re doomed,” Walker said.

Not everyone agreed.

The Anti-Defamation League refused to attend the meeting due to Egypt’s decision to skip an Israeli recent commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the Camp David accords.

“There have to be consequences for behavior that is insulting and offensive to the Jewish community,” ADL national director Abraham Foxman said at the time.

The Jewish leaders that met with Mubarak expressed disappointment over Egypt’s refusal to participate in the commemoration.

Mubarak asked the Jewish leaders not to form opinions over a single episode. He also said no country was working harder than Egypt to create a climate for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

“He would almost always go back to an economic solution,” Rosenthal said.

She said Mubarak argued that open borders and improved trade would allow the people of the region to feel optimistic about their future.

Recommended from JTA