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Response to Review no. 264

Dr. Rory Miller’s review of my book, Israel-Egyptian Relations 1980-2000, is incisive, fairly comprehensive and quite accurate in its broad outlines. I wrote the Hebrew version immediately after I had retired from the Foreign Service, in early 1996. At the time, the concept that a “New Middle-East” had emerged from the peace with Egypt was widely accepted by the Israeli public and, indeed, was the underlying guideline of Israel’s foreign policy which led to the Oslo agreements. Egypt was commonly grasped as a reliable and clean-handed go-between that was eager to assist Israel in achieving peace with the Palestinians and the Arab states and would help Israel take its legitimate place in the region as a full-fledged partner “equal among equals”. Several influential Israeli personalities believed that some kind of collusion could be worked out between Israel and Egypt with the aim of “selling” a pre-agreed package-deal to the other interested parties.

The book was written on this background with the intention of dispelling what I considered to be, based upon my long Egyptian experience, mere wishful thinking and had no objective basis whatsoever. The true story beyond the slogans and the propaganda-smog had to be told and it had to be backed up by a strong, comprehensive and detailed argumentation – the more details, the better! I went through the whole period, from the establishment of peace to 1997 (inclusive) and tackled all topics of interaction in a didactic manner (explained in the book’s preface). I tried to put through to the reader what were the plain facts and what were the true Egyptian policies and the motivations concealed behind them. I underlined Egypt’s underlying approach as it stemmed from its behavior all across the board, trying at the same time to prove, to the best of my ability, that this approach had not changed from day one and that it was a strategic decision and not a tactical one. It is why I have dwelt in the book on the “three lessons” I had learnt in Egypt still at a very early stage: Boutros Ghali’s monologue at the Cairo airport while waiting for Ezer Weizman and Mustapha Khalil’s statement in respond to President’s Navon speech in the early 1980s, and in 1991, Mubarak’s speech at the peak of the Gulf war at the Cairo university. These three statements encompass in a few words the very essence of Egypt’s thinking towards Israel and prove my point with no need for further elaboration.

Furthermore, though I purposely did not create an academic apparatus that would have been time-consuming, I wanted the book to be as comprehensive as possible and tackle every aspect of the Israeli-Egyptian relationship along the years. Later, I have translated the book to English and up-dated the English version up to the year 2001, including Barak’s premiership and the aftermath of Sharon’s landslide election. I did not think that I needed to “trim” details in order to make this version less “heavy” or more enjoyable to read – it was, and still is my belief, that the English reader, especially the academic one, is entitled to have not only the story but also “la petite histoire de l’histoire”.

There is no doubt that there is latent anti-Semitism amongst the Egyptian masses but it has never reached the proportions that it reached in the past in some European and Arab countries. There are very little accounts in Egyptian modern history of pogroms or full-fledged persecutions against the Jews (the massive deportation of all foreigners, including foreign Jews, during the Nasser’s regime in 1956-57 came on the background of the tripartite Suez campaign). The masses do, no doubt, have a genuine admiration for the Jews and their qualities (especially, those who remember the Jews’ contribution in the 1930s and 1940s). True, the elites and the press are actively engaged in spreading anti-Semitism (and anti-Israelism) with the authorities’ silent, and sometimes active, approval – I have not tried to conceal this fact, on the contrary, I have repeatedly stressed and condemned it, but finally what is anti-Semitism when there are practically no Jews in the country? Should an Israeli diplomat, even after retirement, brand in explicit words as anti-Semites Egyptian leading figures? The answer to these questions can be found in one of the first chapters in the book, where I relate the valuable lesson I learned in the early 1970s from our former representative to the UN, Yossef Tekoa, who prevented me to tax frontally Sadat of Nazism and anti-Semitism in a speech in the General Assembly.

I understand that Dr. Miller could not encompass in a few pages the content of a 400- page book. However, it would have been worthwhile to mention a few additional points that are crucial for the reader’s understanding such as: the faithful implementation by Egypt of the military annex as compared to the massive breach of all normalization agreements, Egypt’s attitude to the problem of the missing Israeli soldiers, the centrality of the nuclear issue in Egypt’s foreign policy, Egypt’s position as to Jewish emigration to Israel, fundamentalism in Egypt and inter-Arab relations, Egypt’s strive to replace Israel as the USA leading partner in the Middle-East, the elements that compound the ground-level of normalization allowed by Egypt and the means put in place to forestall the normal flow of relations, the reason of Egypt’s constant interference in Israeli internal politics, Egypt’s role in teaching the Arab world how to make peace with Israel and, at the same time, deprive it from the fruit of peace, etc…, etc…

I have never affirmed that Israel would or could achieve normalization with Egypt in a near or farther future and I have certainly not suggested means and ways on how Israel should reach this goal. The main thesis of my book stands in open contradiction to these contentions- it is a twofold thesis:

– Though Egypt is totally committed to peace with Israel, it is far from wanting a new Middle-East to emerge for the simple reason that the old Middle-East is its own exclusive playground, where it need not compete with Israel on markets or political influence.

– Even after the conclusion of a comprehensive peace in the Middle-East, which would meet totally Palestinian and Arab expectations and aspirations, normalization with Egypt would remain very similar to the existing situation because Egypt fears the impact of a free flow of interaction with Israel and has set in place a sophisticate machinery to prevent it.

In conclusion, from the Israeli standpoint, peace with Egypt is in itself an achievement of the utmost importance that should be nurtured and preserved. The heavy price Israel has paid has, no doubt, proven to be worthwhile. Normalization, as desirable and palatable as it is, should only be a by-product, which would come or not in a remote future. In the meantime, Israel should renounce “running” after its shadow and pay, time and again, an ever-increasing price for “smiles” that are given today and wiped-of tomorrow. Normalization should be neutralized in Egypt’s political arsenal as a lever of pressure on Israel. Furthermore, one should never forget that Egypt is an Arab state – the biggest and the strongest – and that it has, first and foremost, an Arab agenda. Expecting Egypt to be an honest broker and coordinate its steps with Israel at the expense of its Arab brethren is not only naive but also tantamount to entrusting the cat with watching the milk!