Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with new Egyptian Ambassador Hazem Khairat in Jerusalem, February 29, 2016.
(photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
Egypt-Israel relations remain trapped within the realm of mostly secret government to government action, as the Arab country is far from ready to take the relationship public.
Reflecting the strong official ties that are usually kept under the radar, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with new Egyptian Ambassador Hazem Khairat in Jerusalem on Monday. Israeli ambassador to Egypt Haim Koren told Channel 10 on Sunday that “relations with Egypt are very good.”
“I met with Sisi and meet regularly with members of his government,” Koren said.
However, an effort by Egyptian lawmaker and TV presenter Tawfik Okasha to take the relationship public led to a scandal and his being attacked in parliament and suspended.
Okasha, known for courting controversy, hosted Koren for dinner at his home in the northeastern Dakahlia province last week. He made the invitation live on his television show, which sparked outrage.
In another failed effort to take the relationship public, Egypt rejected an Israeli request to hold a friendly soccer match between the two countries.
“We will not accept to hold any game with any Israeli club or league,” Egyptian Football Association spokesman Azmy Megahed told Al Arabiya. “The idea of playing against any Israeli [sports clubs] is completely rejected no matter what.”
The Israel Embassy posted on Facebook on Sunday discussing whether it could be imagined holding the match and asking, “How do you feel about that and what are your opinions on this subject? Will we one day break this barrier of fear and act as two people who compete in all fields?” Israeli ambassador Koren told The Jerusalem Post late Monday regarding the soccer match that, “We had kind of a ‘thinking game’ on our Facebook page, which brought the possibility of what would have happened if there would be a game between the national teams of Egypt and Israel.”
“We posted a picture of such a game which took place in Tel Aviv in 1934,” he said.
Regarding the response by the Egyptian official quoted on Al Arabiya, Koren responded that he “totally missed the point.”
“Surprisingly, there were many likes to the idea” on Facebook, he added.
Zvi Mazel, Israel’s sixth ambassador to Egypt and now a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and contributor to this newspaper, told the Post that the hostile reaction in parliament against Okasha and the Israeli ambassador was not a surprise.
“Egyptian political and religious elites have yet to come to term with the peace with Israel,” he said, adding that many of them identify with former president Gamal Abdel Nasser, a strong nationalist leader, and have deep hatred toward Israel.
“Other devout Muslims are influenced by their own culture,” said Mazel, noting that Al-Azhar University, one of the world’s top centers for Sunni learning, still speaks about the American and Israeli conspiracies against Egypt.
In addition, one should not forget the role of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in inflaming anti-Semitism since the 1930s, continued the former ambassador.
One parliament member, Muhammad Badr, said that the meeting of Okasha with the Israeli ambassador was against the traditions of Islam, he noted.
“As we see even the present good security cooperation between the two countries has not changed their minds.”
However, Mazel asserts that it is positive that the Egyptian media and politicians are debating the issue “as not all of them can be blind to 37 years of peace and the advantages that cooperation with Israel can bring.”
In Mazel’s opinion, Sisi is unlikely to intervene and probably does not mind the public debate on the issue since he has already addressed al-Azhar and asked their thinkers to “revolutionize Islam” and disregard the extremist discourse.
Still, Mazel says no dramatic change can be expected, but “perhaps more elements of Egyptian society will open their minds to a new reality and their own interests.”
Yael Yehoshua, Vice President for Research at MEMRI (The Middle East Media Research Institute), told the Post that despite the peace treaty between the two countries, “the majority of journalists are opposed to a normalization of relations.”Reuters contributed to this report.