A Palestinian waves a flag near a destroyed section of the border wall between the Gaza Strip and Egypt.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Former ambassador to Cairo Yitzhak Levanon is not among those who needed the latest fury involving an Egyptian Olympic athlete to convince him that Egyptian Foreign Minister Samar Shoukry’s recent comments about Israel were not a turning point in bilateral ties. Because Levanon was not swept up by Shoukry’s comments in the first place.
Shoukry sparked an uproar on Sunday by saying, in answer to a question at a meeting he held with Egyptian students, that Israel’s actions against Palestinians did not constitute terrorism.
This comment led some in Jerusalem to argue that it was part of an Egyptian government effort to change the public’s attitude toward Israel. While Egypt under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi cooperates closely with Israel on security issues, public attitudes – as evident by the Egyptian judoka who refused to shake the hands of his Israeli competitor following a match at the Rio Olympics – have not correspondingly changed for the good.
This attitude was on display again on Tuesday, when a picture appeared of female Egyptian beach volleyball player Doaa Elghobashy – who caused a sensation at the Rio Games by playing in a hijab and not in the standard bikini – smiling in front of a woman holding an Israeli flag.
The photo, which appeared on the Facebook page of the pro-Israel StandWithUS organization, as well as on the Facebook account of Israel’s embassy in Cairo, caused a furor of its own. Elghobashy reportedly said the picture was part of a conspiracy against her, and that had she known the person standing behind her was holding an Israeli flag, she would never have taken the picture.
She also said the picture may have been tampered, and the flag photoshopped in.
Levanon said that before jumping to conclusions and saying Shoukry’s comments were an effort from the top to change public opinions toward Israel for the better, his statement must be put in context. And the context was that it was not an initiated statement, but rather an answer to a question. And, said Levanon, who served in Cairo from 2009 to 2011, there is a big difference, with a diplomatic statement the product of internal discussions and representing policy.
Levanon noted that Shoukry said it was impossible to call Israel’s action in Gaza terrorism, because it does not met the definition of terrorist acts. Egypt, Levanon said, knows very well how Hamas operates in the Gaza Strip – that it uses children as human shields and places rocket launchers in school yards – and that helps explain Shoukry’s response.
Shoukry’s words should not, however, be interpreted to mean Egypt was turning its back on the Palestinians, or favoring Israel, he said.
“The Egyptian position on the Palestinian issue has not changed for the last 30-40 years,” he said. “And this position is simple: ‘We will support what the Palestinians decide.’” By “Palestinians,” Levanon pointed out, the Egyptians mean the Palestinian Authority, and not Hamas.
Levanon said there has been evidence of a change of attitudes inside Egypt toward Israel over the last two years since Sisi took power that are more significant than Shoukry’s comment.
For instance, he said, Egypt has been granting more visas to Israelis wanting to visit; there is strong security cooperation between the two countries; there are reports Egypt will not bring a traditional anti-Israel resolution to the International Atomic Energy Agency in September; and there are fewer anti-Semitic attacks against Israel in the Egyptian press.
He also said that Sisi has less “political complexes” than former president Hosni Mubarak,” complexes” that constrained the deposed leader from pushing for closer ties with Israel.
“If Sisi thinks it is in Egypt’s interest to get closer to Israel, he will do so,” Levanon said.
“Mubarak had a complex. He never came to Israel, he wanted to keep his ties with Arab leaders, return to the bosom of the Arab world, lead the Arab League, be seen as the Arab world leader.”
Sisi is not motivated by the same things, Levanon said. “The interests and good of Egypt, not the whole Arab nation, are what is foremost in his mind.”