The need to keep good relations with Israel does not exclude the margin to introduce a few well-calculated changes to the format of these relations – including, simply, the phrasing of the ambassadorial letter of accreditation said Mohamed El-Orabi, Egypt's former foreign minister.
El-Orabi, the second foreign minister in post-January 25 Revolution Egypt, had served as deputy chief of mission in Tel-Aviv from 1994 to 1998 as well as the Egyptian embassy in Washington.
"I think it is exaggerated to argue that Israel - or for that matter the US - would have been terribly offended if Egypt had sent a letter of accreditation with its new ambassador that included the same traditional content of appeal for good bilateral relations without having to copy the exact text of the pre-revolution format," El-Orabi argued. He added, "It would have been understandable and, in fact, a good message to both Israel and the US that the parameters of foreign policy-making in Egypt after the revolution would necessarily be different from before the revolution."
This week critics of President Mohamed Morsi, including some of those who voted him to ward off the ascension of Ahmed Shafiq, the last prime minister of ousted president Hosni Mubarak, expressed dismay over the text in the letter of accreditation of Attef Salem, Egypt’s new ambassador to Israel.
The text of the letter, a standard format that is presented with all ambassadors as a the letter of accreditation includes phrases of appreciation to the president of Israel and its people in a way that critics said was insensitive to an overall public frustration with endless Israeli violations of Palestinian rights and more so of the clear demands of the January 25 Revolution for a more conservative approach towards Israel.
The letter was leaked to the Israeli press. "Of course it was deliberately leaked; it is very important for the Israeli government to tell its people that it is still keeping the traditional good ties with Egypt and that it is also gaining the recognition by political Islam in the leading country of the Arab world," El-Orabi said. He added that it is a given that "every single letter or communication that is coming out of Cairo to Tel Aviv could be leaked by the Israelis."
Egypt's presidential spokesman responded to critics by saying that the text of the letter is issued in its standard format and is not subject to revision or the amendment of the presidency.
A similar line was offered by the presidential spokesman upon the leakage of a thank-you letter Morsi sent in reply Israel's President Shimon Peres' congratulatory letter when he was elected president of Egypt.
"Obviously formalities have to be kept because at the end of the day we have normal relations with Israel, but then again they could avoid using the exact traditional text of the letter of accreditation," El-Orabi said.
This text of the letter of accreditation has been in use for years. The format is kept at the presidency, which issues it in a hand-written (not typed) document – in Arabic.
The text of the letter has been amended several times throughout the years; the most recent of which was during Mubarak's rule, who demanded the reduction of the paragraphs referring to the exceptional qualities of the selected envoy. Specifically, it used to read: "This ambassador that I trust with amelioration of bilateral relations between our two countries possesses exceptional qualities and integrity."
For El-Orabi, the letter is important in the sense that it could reveal the public opinion's continuous demand for the management of a new foreign policy approach to Israel. A few amendments, he suggested, are doable – and not at any cost to the state of peace between the two countries.
"Other than an adjustment to the text of the letter, there could be other measures," El-Orabi suggested. "One example would have been to slightly delay the nomination of the ambassador of Egypt to Israel for a few weeks; this would have sent a message that Egypt is changing posture – or at least adjusting posture."
During Mubarak's three-decade rule Egypt had kept its peace with Israel fully intact, but the management of the bilateral relations varied. During a decade, during which Amr Moussa headed the foreign ministry, Cairo made an effort to put Israel on the defensive once in a while and to attempt to exercise pressure.
El-Orabi, who was Moussa’s chief-of-staff for a few years, argued that this policy produced an Israeli recognition that Egypt should not be taken for granted.
"Egypt is a country that has passed through a revolution and Israel cannot contest the fact that public opinion demands that the country's new leadership would have to bow to," said the former foreign minister.
"President Morsi's policy as it is now seems to be is based on keeping relations with Israel exactly where it was under the rule of President Mubarak. I think that it is important to keep the peace, but it is also possible to introduce new elements of strength, especially considering Israel cannot be oblivious to the fact that it is basically living in a region where political Islam is getting more powerful," El-Orabi said.
An inevitably apprehensive Israel, El-Orabi said, would not want to undermine its relations with Egypt "especially that it is very clear for Israel now that Egyptian public opinion completely rejects normalisation and that for strict reasons of national security Egypt is working hard to free Sinai [on Israel's border] from the influence of jihadist Islam."
"Despite the fuss that was made by the Israeli press - and to an extend by Israeli officials - over the advancement of the level of armament on the borders between Egypt and Israel [in contradiction with the terms of the peace treaty between the two countries] Israel was at the end of the day content with the firm Egyptian commitment not to let jihadists on the loose in Sinai," El-Orabi said.
Meanwhile, El-Orabi argued that reaching out to Gaza would be a good and safe way to indicate the introduction of new elements of foreign policy management with Israel.
"There is no reason at all why Egypt should continue the strict policy - there's no explanation, is Egypt just talking about the closed borders? towards Gaza; to the contrary, I would argue that now is the time for Egypt to introduce a new humanitarian assistance approach to Gaza," El-Orabi said.
According to El-Orabi Egypt should not abandon its close engagement with all Palestinian factions and the pursuit of bringing these factions closer. The strength of Egyptian involvement in the Palestinian political scene, he argued, enforces the weight of Egypt before Israel, who would always be concerned about internal Palestinian politics.
On Gaza, El-Orabi argued that Egypt needs to consider what its reaction will be to Israeli provocations in Gaza. "I am not saying that Israel is set to attack Gaza, but I am saying that Israeli regional policies are unclear. As such, it is unwise to exclude Israeli military harassment of Gaza, for example, and should this happen, Cairo needs to be prepared with a formulated and well-calculated reaction," he said.
According to El-Orabi, "whatever happens, Egypt needs to free itself from any obligation to close its doors in Gaza's face, especially if it comes under attack."
Egypt, the former foreign minister, should not overlook the fact that the next US president - whether it be Barack Obama or Romney - would want to work on reviving Palestinian-Israeli negotiations to settle this issue. "Egypt should prepare from now its own initiative to make sure that its views are incorporated in any diplomatic move that would allow for the resumption of the now-suspended peace process," he said.
Apart from that, El-Orabi accepted that Morsi would not be in any rush to meet, invite or visit his Israeli counterpart, but "the change of the management of relations with Israel today should go beyond the reduction of high-level talks; it should go more to the substance."