Palestine Network

War of words

Posted by shuraka on November 20, 2007

By: Saleh Al-Naami 

Yuval Steinitz, Likud representative and former head of the Knesset’s Security and Foreign Relations Committee, won the admiration of colleagues from both the right and centre when the US Senate adopted his proposal to freeze $200 million of American aid to Egypt because, so Steinitz claims, Egypt does nothing to halt the smuggling of weapons to the Gaza Strip.

Two weeks ago, receiving the congratulations of ministers and Knesset members affiliated with Zionist parties as he strutted through the Knesset canteen he looked like a cat that had just found an inexhaustible reservoir of cream.

Few in Israel doubt that Steinitz is the brains behind the American Senate’s resolution. He sent letters to all 100 Senate members urging them to adopt the proposal, and met large number of them, as well as the heads of various Congress committees, in pursuit of this end. Steinitz claimed in his letter that Egypt turns a blind eye to the smuggling of weapons into Gaza for two reasons — “quiet support of the Palestinian resistance movements, and so as to create a justification for its request to increase the number of Egyptian forces stationed in Sinai, and thus guarantee the re-opening of the Camp David Accords.”

The minister of internal security, Avi Dichter, and the minister of transportation, Shaul Mofaz, lauded Steinitz for what they called his “nationalist effort”. Steinitz is now preparing a new campaign, hoping to convince the American administration to stop providing the Egyptian army with weapons. And as part of the campaign he is revisiting a document published in Haaretz on 4 December in which he claimed “the Egyptian army is increasing its strength and training to prepare for war on Israel”.

Last Sunday’s issue of Haaretz revealed that the Israeli security establishment has embraced Steinitz’s position and rejected an American proposal to increase the number of Egyptian forces stationed in Sinai in order to help stop smuggling operations. The chorus raised against Egypt was finally joined by the prime minister, Ehud Olmert, who on Sunday announced that during his meeting with the German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier he had pressed the European Union to pressure Egypt to halt smuggling operations. Olmert and Steinitz seem determined to ignore reports in the Israeli press stating that Egypt has uncovered 150 tunnels to date, far more than the number Israel managed when it was present along the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt.

Israeli decision-makers are clearly preoccupied with Egypt’s decision to commence a peaceful nuclear energy programme. Israel’s Minister of Strategic Affairs and Deputy Prime Minister Avigdor Lieberman launched an intemperate attack following President Hosni Mubarak’s announcement, saying implementation of the plans would “bring a frightful catastrophe to Israel”. In an interview broadcast on Russian language television stations last Friday, Lieberman said Egypt must be prevented from acquiring any weapons or military capability that might change a regional balance of power that is tilted sharply in Israel’s favour.

Lieberman has vowed to include any peaceful nuclear programme in Egypt or other Arab states on the agenda of the next session of the Ministerial Committee for Security Affairs, Israel’s highest strategic decision-making body. His pronouncements provoked journalist Akiva Eldar to comment that Lieberman was scaling the “heights of impertinence”. Eldar wrote that Lieberman had “lost the ability to distinguish between the possible and the impossible,” stressing that Israel was in no position to demand Egypt not to develop a peaceful nuclear programme when Israel is in possession of its own nuclear arsenal.

The Israeli security establishment appears determined to deal with Egypt as if the two countries were at war. Shaftai Shafit, a former head of Mossad, has repeatedly confirmed that Egypt is an “intelligence target”. Although Shafit has yet to comment on Egyptian claims that it has uncovered a spy network working in Israel’s interest, he stressed in an interview given to Israeli radio on 5 October that Israel must always know what is happening in Egypt “so that it is not taken by surprise”.

Israel’s demands on Egypt have reached a ludicrous point, with acting Prime Minister Haim Ramon, like his colleague Lieberman and a large number of ministers and representatives, insisting Cairo resettle Palestinian refugees from around the world in the Sinai.

Israeli antagonism to all things Egyptian is growing. In its 3 October issue, Yediot Aharanot revealed that Israel, together with assorted Jewish organisations, was spearheading a campaign against Egyptian Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni’s bid to become UNESCO secretary-general on the grounds that he had opposed normalisation between Egyptian and Israeli artists. The paper’s Arab affairs correspondent, Semdar Biri, noted in a satisfied tone that Israel had obtained assurance that Hosni would not be elected to the post. Yet Israeli ministries and institutions refuse to cooperate with Egypt in most fields. Last Monday, Haaretz reported that the Israeli Ministry of Tourism had rejected an offer by British Airways for Egypt and Israel to undertake a joint promotion campaign to encourage British tourists to visit their countries.

 

Israel also takes the Egyptian president’s refusal to visit Israel as a slight. Eight members of the Knesset’s foreign security committee have so far approached Olmert arguing that he should not only not visit Egypt again but stipulate that any future meeting between Mubarak and any Israeli officials be made conditional on Mubarak officially visiting Israel.

In Israel, every event in Egypt is of interest, no matter how peripheral. One example of this was the extensive coverage in the Israeli media of a session in the People’s Assembly in which Abdel-Aziz Seif El-Nasr, head of the legal department at the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, said that under international law the city of Eilat belongs to the Palestinians.

Many Israelis believe that the positions adopted by Cairo reflect not the opinions of Egypt’s political and intellectual elites but the hostility of the Egyptian street towards the US and Israel. Much attention was given in the Israeli media to an opinion poll conducted by Maryland University for the foreign committee of the US House of Representatives covering four Islamic countries, Morocco, Egypt, Indonesia and Pakistan. According to the poll, Egyptians were the most hardline in their rejection of any US presence in the Middle East, with 93 per cent of the Egyptians polled expressing sympathy with operations waged against American forces in Iraq. A similar percentage believed the US was actively hostile to Islam.

Amir Oren, a senior Israeli commentator, said of the poll results that, “if this is what the Egyptians feel about America, the feelings they have for Israel are more inimical and extremist”.

Eli Shakid and Tsvi Mazal, both former Israeli ambassadors to Cairo, are currently leading a campaign that seeks to suggest that the extreme views prevalent in the Egyptian street will ultimately place power in the hands of those vehemently opposed to the West. For this reason, they warn, it would be “dangerous to allow any change in the current balance of power between Cairo and Tel Aviv”.

Published in Egypt’s AL-AHRAM WEEKLY, November 15 – 21, 2007 issue.

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