Thirty years after the death of Sadat, Egyptian-Israeli peace still hangs in the balance

Dina Ezzat , Saturday 8 Oct 2011

In the wake of Egypt's uprising, Sadat's controversial moves to normalise relations with Israel are seemingly more unpopular than ever

Anwar Sadat and
Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin agree on peace in 1978 (Photo: Ahram archives)

New Cairo -- a villa about two hours drive from downtown: this is the location where Israel plans to establish its new embassy, abandoning the one on the top floors of a Giza apartment building which has served since Israel sent its first ambassador to Egypt in 1980.

"We have been notified of the new place. They are handling the security matters in cooperation with the concerned authorities -- the choice is theirs," said an Egyptian official.
The move of the Israeli embassy to a spot far from the beaten track comes in the wake of repeated demonstrations outside the former mission, staged by masses enraged by the Israeli violation of Egyptian territories in August, during an attack on besieged Gaza, that killed six Egyptian border guards. On the night of 9 September, protesters stormed the embassy itself, tossing documents from the windows.
"We showed them a night that they can never forget. We reminded them what Egypt did to them on 6 October [1973] and what it could still do to them," said Hussein, a driver in his mid-30s.
Hussein had not been born when the October War took place and he was only three years old when late President Anwar Sadat went to Jerusalem to launch the long and hard road to Egyptian-Israeli peace. 
He does not relate to any of this. For him, as he says, Israel "is the enemy of Egypt. This is not just about what they are doing to the Palestinians every day, it is about their intentions towards us -- they just want us to keep aside while they attack Palestinians."
Hussein says he would not allow an Israeli tourist in his taxi "not even if I didn’t have a pound in my pocket. Never -- I would rather die."
This Cairo taxi driver's attitude is the antithesis of Sadat's call to bring down the psychological barrier between Egyptians and Israelis. 
"What is between us is not a psychological barrier, it is blood," he says. "They killed our soldiers in repeated wars."
When Sadat was assassinated by Islamist army officers during celebration to mark the 6 October anniversary in 1981, the psychological barrier between Egypt and Israel was still very much present.
At the time, the Israeli press expressed deep concern over the fate of the recently-signed Egyptian-Israeli peace.
Sadat's successor, Hosni Mubarak reassured them. "Go tell your people that I am committed to peace," he said to an Israeli journalist a couple of weeks after Sadat's assassination.
Mubarak was indeed committed to peace, to the extent that Israeli TV has just nominated him, nine months after his removal from office, as man of the year for his efforts in promoting repprochement between Egypt and Israel.
During his 30-year rule, Mubarak gave normalisation between the two countries a good push ahead. Among the deals were joint tourism projects, exchange of agricultural expertise, joint industrial schemes with the US and the notorious agreement to export Egyptian natural gas to Israel at prices much lower than those of the international market.
Still, the psychological barrier never went down. 
This, according to political-military analyst Qadri Said is the fault of the community of Egyptian intellectuals that has "not come to terms with accepting Israel as just another state with which we can just have normal relations based on our interests."
Egyptians were never forthcoming about normalising their relations with Israel – not even during the supposed hey-days of peace under Sadat himself.
In his memoirs entitled My mission in Israel, Saad Mourtada, Egypt's first ambassador to Israel, speaks at length about the failure of the painstaking efforts of the Egyptian state to encourage the public to normalise with Israel.
Mourtada talks of a "one-sided" normalisation from the Israeli public and a two-sided normalisation at the official level.
The "cold" nature of Egyptian peace with Israel, according to Mohamed Orabi, Egypt's former minister of foreign affairs, should not be portrayed as just a matter of the so-called psychological barrier. 
For Orabi, who served during his years as a career diplomat in the Egyptian embassy in Tel Aviv, "this would be too simplistic."
The fact of the matter, says Orabi, is that the basis of Egyptian-Israeli peace was never drawn in the right way "in the sense that they were agreed on among two heads of state without sufficient attention to the public perception of the details of the peace deal from the Egyptian perspective."
Moreover, adds Orabi, it was unrealistic to think at any point that Egyptian-Israeli peace could be advanced while the Palestinians were still suffering at the hand of Israel.
"The Israeli governments have not committed themselves to strengthen peace with Egypt by reaching out for a comprehensive peace with the Arab World. Their failure to come to terms with the fact that without a [wider] peace treaty with Israel, Egyptian-Israeli peace will always be unstable," said Orabi.
For Orabi, Israeli has not ceased acting as if "it were a Western protectorate in the region."
He argues that for Israel to pursue normal relations with "Egypt, the leading country of the region," it should first normalise its situation in the region and stop counting on the official commitment of any particular head of state to keep things stable. 
"The Arab world from now on is run by the will of its people and not that of its heads of states," Orabi said.
"The true strategic treasure for Israel should not be this or that head of state but rather the fulfillment of the true requirements of peace, especially on the Palestinian issue."    
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