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One Foot on the Moon

When Sheikh Abdel Azuz bin Baz, the mufti of Saudi Arabia, issued a fatwa last fall endorsing peace with Israel, Al-Ahram reminded its readers that the same sheikh had also decreed that the earth was flat. Delegations of Israeli intellectuals visiting Cairo were shocked by the bitter criticism of Israel they heard from journalists, academics, and diplomats in the Egyptian foreign ministry. Members of the Israeli Foreign Affairs Council who visited in December came back shaken by the complaints they heard of Israeli “hegemonial” designs. Egypt, they said in a report, “was worried about the speed and direction of the peace process which might have an adverse effect on Egypt’s standing in the region.” President Ezer Weizman, on a state visit to Cairo last January, was so shocked by the way Egyptians talked to him of economic domination by Israel that he told an acquaintance that Egyptians seemed to believe in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. During the past few months Israel was so often and so sharply attacked in the Egyptian press that an innocent reader could have concluded that the two countries were on the verge of breaking off relations or even of war.

The truth, of course, is that Egypt’s intellectual elite has always had its reservations about the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty of 1978. As a group they have been traditionally pan-Arabist, Nasserist, or philo-Communist. A good example is the Al-Ahram columnist Mohammed Sid-Ahmed. He imagined what an Israeli-Arab peace might be like in his influential 1975 book, After the Guns Fall Silent, the first of its kind in the Arab world. It included inventive proposals on how to make peace safe for both sides, e.g., the building of industrial parks on borders. Three years later, when peace was actually agreed on at Camp David, Sid-Ahmed opposed it mainly because it was a separate peace, rejected by the Palestinians and the other Arabs.

A deep distrust remains. I often heard it said that while Egypt had opened the door to peace, wasn’t it true Israel was trying to push its way in? An Israeli diplomat in Cairo told me that a distinguished Egyptian woman had told him that Abraham had been an Arab. That remark, in his view, was typical of Egyptian attitudes in general. “Some of them even deny the Holocaust,” he said. (Schindler’s List was banned for reasons of “public morality.”)2 “They see us through a prism which we will never change.” Another woman asked him: “So you have decided to overrun us once again [as in 1967]?” An Israeli diplomat with considerable experience in Egypt said: “In making peace they may have hoped to cut us down to our true size, as they saw it. Now they see they didn’t and they are furious.”

During the ten days of my visit to Cairo I talked to some of the bestknown Egyptian intellectuals and came away, at times, feeling that many saw Israel as another Japan, a small island off the Arab subcontinent, racist and greedy, armed with nuclear weapons, ready now to overpower them by the sheer force of money and its advanced technology. At one point I said, “Okay, if you are so concerned, perhaps it would be better if there will be no regional common market. Israel could seek its political and economic future within the European Union.” The answer was, “If that’s what they’ll do, it will only prove that they are colonialists and intruders. We always knew they don’t want to integrate in the area.” One writer told me, “Israel takes Egypt for granted.” Another insisted that “the mentality of Israel is the main problem.” Samir Ragab, the publisher of the English-language Egyptian Gazette, wrote on January 24, 1995:

Frankly speaking, the Jews haven’t and will not give up their wickedness which began in the days of the Prophet Moses and until the day of the resurrection.

There are few, if any, contrary voices in the Egyptian press. “We breathe in the present but think in the past,” Lutfi Kholi, the noted political essayist, told me. “The problem is that among my colleagues in the intellectual community many still oppose all normalization with Israel.” According to Tahsin Basheer, a veteran diplomat, “Nobody is coming up with a new idea, everybody is turning in circles.” Peres, with his high-flying plans for a Middle East common market was an imaginative man, he said, “but pointing to the stars without seeing the tips of one’s fingers was not very practical either.”

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In this atmosphere of suspicion and distrust the approaching expiration in April of the Non-Proliferation Treaty of nuclear weapons (NPT) has added another nasty element of contention. The semi-official Egyptian press has been agitated about this for months. The United States has been pressing for a renewal of the treaty for an indefinite period. Egypt has announced it will not sign it unless Israel signs too. This has created a serious problem for both countries and for the United States. The United States fears that if Egypt does not sign, other Afro-Asian countries might follow suit. Israel has accused Egypt of raising this issue at the worst of all possible moments and for reasons of “prestige” and “hegemony”; it wants, an Israeli diplomat said, to reemphasize its position as leader in the Arab world. When Israel refused even to discuss the subject, Egypt responded with outrage. “Whenever we mention it they jump as if they’ve been stung.”

Would Israel feel more secure if the NPT breaks down and the Arab countries acquire their own nuclear arsenal? Mohamed Heikal, Egypt’s best known columnist, has been one of several writers calling on Egypt to develop its own nuclear bomb. Some Egyptians wondered why in Israel, a democratic country, there is hardly any public discussion of the nuclear question. (There was some debate over Israel’s having a nuclear capacity during the Sixties; after the Yom Kippur War this subject became taboo.) Official Egyptian spokesmen warn Israel that they do not accept its right to maintain a “monopoly on nuclear weapons.” Field Marshall Muhammad Tantawi, Egypt’s defense minister, said that a military imbalance “often leads to the adoption of policies that are not well calculated.” Osama el Baz, President Mubarak’s chief adviser on foreign affairs and national security spoke of a dangerous “strategic imbalance.” Everything would remain “lopsided” unless Israel dismantled its nuclear arsenal and joined the NPT. Ahmed Abdel-Halim, a retired general and strategy expert of the privately funded Middle East Research Institute, told me he understood that Israel had “legitimate security concerns.” It may well need a “last resort” protection by nuclear weapons.

We could live with it when, as we were told, Israel had eight or ten nuclear warheads. But now they are said to have two hundred warheads! That we see as a threat to impose their policies on Egypt and the entire region.

The one constructive, or at least imaginative suggestion on this issue was made by Mohammed Sid-Ahmed in the English-language weekly edition of Al-Ahram. He proposed to resolve, or at least calm down, the NPT controversy by getting Israel and Egypt to cooperate on an Atoms For Peace Plan—a huge joint effort to relieve the region’s water shortage by building large nuclear-powered desalination plants.

Rabin’s rash talk of a possible general war only made things worse. Israel has never admitted that it posesses nuclear weapons. It defines its nuclear policy as deliberately “ambiguous,” yet it has leaked many hints over the years that its potential nuclear capacity was a kind of last-ditch deterrent against all-out attack. For this reason Israel refuses to sign the treaty before peaceful relations, including with Iraq and Iran, are established in the region.

According to a transcript leaked to Ha’aretz in February, at an angry meeting recently between Shimon Peres and the Egyptian foreign minister Amr Moussa to resolve this issue, the following exchange allegedly took place:

Peres: Before the Camp David [peace agreement] you knew exactly all the facts in the nuclear field.

Moussa: Sadat did raise the issue at Camp David.

Peres: Sadat indeed raised this issue and received the reply that on this matter we will not talk, and it did not enter the agreement. You are constantly saying: “We give peace in return for territory.” We surrendered territory but the terror continues and the Arab boycott continues. Why does no one of you criticize Iran and her nuclear program?

Moussa: Our position on the Non-Proliferation Treaty is not my personal [whim, as Israeli officials maintain.]

Peres: Sadat came to Jerusalem when public opinion was against peace and he was the pioneer throughout the Arab world, where there is still today a majority of opinion against peace.

There are deep differences in outlook between the two governments on the nuclear issue, and when all is said and done, there also seems a true clash of interests. It would be an act of statesmanship to keep that clash within strict limits. One morning in Cairo I had a long talk with Osama el Baz, still reputedly the president’s closest adviser. His high-ceilinged office is in a dusty old palace on the banks of the Nile, resplendent with gilded wood carvings and faded cream walls. He said that Egypt would sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty even if Israel did not, but on one condition: that Israel allow inspection of its sites and agreement was reached on the timetable and on the procedures of disarmament at a future date. He assured me that the nuclear issue was serious, but

not a major contention between the two countries…I understand perfectly what Rabin can and cannot do…He is for peace. We do not want to weaken him and his government…Mubarak often asks us to understand Rabin’s difficult problems and concerns…Rabin has a heart…Mubarak and Rabin are very cozy.

The unfavorable image of Israel in the semi-official Egyptian press, Osama el Baz said, was sometimes unjustified. He shrugged his shoulders: “We can’t do anything about that! There is freedom of the press in Egypt!” He assured me that he and the president were convinced that Israel did not intend to “dominate” the region. Peres was imaginative but also wise. Rabin was no fool. They knew well that they would fail if they tried. The great problem, as he saw it, was the “perception” of Israel in Egyptian eyes. The perception was bad. Israeli leaders were at least partly to blame for that.

If the “perception” was wrong, I asked el Baz, was the Egyptian government doing anything to change it? He himself had often made public statements to correct this erroneous perception, he said, even though “it isn’t my proper domain.” In his public lectures, about once a week, the subject invariably came up. The trouble was that the press did not always report his remarks in full. That was the problem.

Another problem, however, was summed up by his own sense of helplessness and that of his colleagues at the top of Egypt’s hierarchy. They can do little more than shrug in the face of evidence that they and their views are widely disdained.

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    The reason given was that it included pictures of naked women. But the Israeli diplomat thought this was just an excuse.

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