Egyptian government, not people, recognize Israel

CAIRO, 19 December (IPS) - Thirty years after late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s historic trip to Israel, Egyptian diplomatic relations with the Hebrew state remain cordial. On a popular level, however, the relationship — buttressed by the 1979 Camp David peace agreement — still represents a major source of contention.

“The so-called peace between Egypt and Israel continues to lack popular approval,” Ahmed Thabet, professor of political science at Cairo University told IPS. “Meanwhile, Israel has exploited the situation to maintain racist, expansionist policies.”

On 20 November 1977, Sadat took the world by surprise by visiting Jerusalem, where he made direct peace overtures to members of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset. Two years later, Sadat’s audacity was rewarded in the form of the Camp David peace agreement, which returned the Sinai Peninsula — captured by Israel in 1967 — to Egyptian sovereignty.

The treaty also activated diplomatic relations between the two states, making Cairo the first Arab capital to officially recognize Israel since the latter’s founding in 1948.

Cairo’s readiness to make a separate peace with Israel, however, scandalized the wider Arab world. In 1979, in the wake of Camp David, Egypt’s membership of the Arab League was suspended, and the League’s headquarters relocated from Cairo to Tunis.

Egypt’s League membership was restored ten year later. Nevertheless, most of the organization’s 22 affiliate nations remain adamant until today that diplomatic normalization with Tel Aviv come within the context of an “equitable” settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Along with Egypt, only the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan — which signed its own peace deal in 1994 — has full diplomatic relations with Israel.

In the decades following Camp David, domestic Egyptian sensibilities, outraged by Israel’s heavy-handed Palestine policies, precluded the possibility of genuine bilateral cooperation.

After the outbreak of the second intifada in late 2000, Cairo — in an effort to prove its Arab credentials — withdrew its ambassador from Tel Aviv. He returned in 2005, however, after a major peace summit was convened in the Red Sea resort town of Sharm al-Sheikh attended by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, then Israeli premier Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Since then, Egypt-Israel diplomatic activity has picked up noticeably. Within the last two years, numerous high-level Israeli figures — including ministers and lawmakers — have visited Cairo for talks with Egyptian counterparts.

Along with high-profile diplomatic exchanges, the budding rapprochement has also been marked by stepped-up economic cooperation.

In late 2004, Cairo and Tel Aviv — with Washington’s blessing — signed a significant bilateral trade accord. Known as a Qualified Industrial Zones (QIZ) agreement, the deal allows Egyptian producers to export goods to the US market duty-free provided they contain a percentage of Israeli content.

In October of this year, the Israeli minister for industry met his Egyptian counterpart in Cairo to amend the arrangement. Under the new terms, the percentage of mandatory Israeli content was reduced slightly while the scheme’s geographical scope was widened to include production factories in Upper Egypt.

In 2005, Cairo also approved an agreement between a private Egypt-based energy firm and the state-run Israel Electric Corporation. According to the terms of that deal, yet to go into effect, the company is obliged to sell some 1.7 billion cubic meters of Egyptian natural gas annually to Israel for a 15-year period.

Despite these developments, however, the notion of cooperation with the Hebrew state — given perceived Israeli bellicosity — remains broadly unpopular on the Egyptian street.

Egyptian critics of Israeli policy point to the current siege of the Hamas-governed Gaza Strip, maintained by Tel Aviv and Washington; ongoing Israeli settlement building in occupied territories in violation of international law; Israel’s continued policy of assassination of Palestinian resistance activists; and Israeli efforts to “Judaize” the city of Jerusalem by emptying it of Arab inhabitants.

Egyptian perceptions of Israel as an aggressor were reinforced in last year’s summer war between the Israeli military and Lebanese resistance group Hezbollah. In that conflict, Israel was widely blamed for indiscriminate use of force that resulted in the death of thousands of non-combatants in southern Lebanon.

“Egypt’s peace with Israel has not led to a moderation of Israeli aggression against the Palestinians and Lebanese,” said Thabet. “All it did was to remove the biggest Arab country — Egypt — from the equation.”

In contrast to Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party, virtually all of Egypt’s opposition parties stand against diplomatic normalization with Israel.

The Muslim Brotherhood movement in particular, which represents Egypt’s biggest opposition bloc in parliament, remains adamant in its refusal to acknowledge the state of Israel or accept the terms of the Egypt-Israel peace accord.

“The Muslim Brotherhood does not recognize Israel and rejects the Camp David agreement,” Essam al-Arian, head of the movement’s political department, told IPS. “If a popular referendum were held, we’re sure the people would also reject it.”

Thabet, for the most part, agreed with this assessment.

“Camp David was signed by the small political and economic elite that governs Egypt,” he said. “But the people, along with opposition groups of all stripes, reject the treaty.”

According al-Arian, the same can be said about Cairo’s recent economic understandings with Israel.

“It was the Egyptian government that agreed to the QIZ scheme and the natural gas sale,” he said. “But these deals don’t enjoy any popular support.”

All of Egypt’s many professional unions also remain staunchly against the idea of cooperation with the Hebrew state.

“Every one of the professional syndicates, along with most writers and intellectuals, stand against diplomatic normalization,” said al-Arian, who is also assistant secretary-general of the Egyptian Doctors Syndicate. “Those who depart from this stance can expect to have their syndicate memberships suspended.”

According to Thabet, official Egyptian cooperation with Israel must be seen within the context of US influence on Egyptian policymaking.

“Cairo signed these agreements with Israel — despite tremendous popular disapproval — at Washington’s behest,” he said. “Because, at the end of the day, the regime needs Washington to keep it in power.”

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