Various Israeli officials have privately been talking of late about a "new honeymoon" period between Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak: The personal relationship is said to be good; coordination between the two bureaus is effective; and Mubarak had constructive things to say about Netanyahu during his recent visit to Washington.
Netanyahu's decision not to make a public effort to prevent Egypt's Culture Minister Farouk Hosni winning election as the next head of UNESCO may have been taken in deference to the sensitivities of the Egyptian president, who had personally backed Hosni's unsuccessful candidacy. On the ground, meanwhile, Israeli security officials talk cautiously about an improvement over recent months in Egyptian efforts to prevent arms smuggling into Gaza.
Any such positive developments in bilateral relations, however, are being dismally outweighed by the negatives: Egypt, formally at peace with Israel for three decades, is at the forefront of Arab efforts to internationally discomfit Israel over the reported nuclear capability at the heart of this country's self-defense doctrine. A well-rewarded US ally, Egypt has also failed to encourage the dramatic moves by other Arab states toward normalized ties with Israel that the Obama administration has been seeking en route to an Israeli-Palestinian peace breakthrough.
And, perhaps most disturbingly, internally Egypt's media is intensifying its abiding hostility toward Israel, ensuring that our cold peace cannot be warmed.
ON SUNDAY, the leading Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram, the semi-official voice of the regime, issued an absolute ban on Israelis. The newspaper, arguably the most prominent in the Arab world, has hosted numerous Israelis over the decades, but henceforth no Israeli may set foot in its offices, its staff is barred from attending conferences where Israelis are present, and all other avenues of interaction are formally off-limits.
This staggering slide was prompted by a recent visit by Israel's Ambassador to Egypt, Shalom Cohen, to the newspaper's premises. There he met with a prominent editor and academic, Hala Mustafa, whom he wished to invite to a symposium on peacemaking efforts in the Obama era. Dr. Mustafa, whose newspaper bosses had been told in advance about the ambassador's visit, and who did not give Cohen a yes or a no because she knew she would need various authorizations, is now being ostracized by the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate, which for a quarter-century has banned all forms of normalization with Israel. The syndicate is now reported to be drawing up new blacklists of all Egyptian journalists who have had the temerity to interact with Israelis about anything, anywhere.
OFTEN, IN years past, when Israeli officials have raised the vexed issue of the vicious anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism - in words and, notably, in cartoons - that are such a staple of the Egyptian media, their counterparts, from the president on down, have argued, disingenuously, that the authorities are loath to intervene in the workings of the Egyptian press.
But Mubarak can sidestep the issue no longer. Our ambassador's credentials are recognized by Cairo. And there is no Egyptian legal bar - indeed quite the reverse - on contacts such as that between Cohen and Mustafa.
The president's reluctance to take on the powerful journalists' syndicate may be understandable, but it is counter-productive. Unless or until they are confronted, the bitter rejectionists who set the media tone in Egypt will take ever-bolder actions to weaken Israeli-Egyptian peace, foster greater enmity for Israel among the public, and by thus radicalizing ordinary Egyptians, undermine the very stability of the Mubarak regime.
Humiliated by his narrow defeat to Bulgaria's Irina Bokova in the UNESCO vote last week, Hosni - who despite comments on the racism of Israeli culture and the need to burn Israeli books is not, ironically, regarded in Egypt as being particularly hostile to Israel - returned home muttering, with default anti-Semitism, about "a group of the world's Jews who had a major influence in the elections."
Could it be, however, as suggested by Rania al-Malky in Egypt's English Daily News, that Hosni actually only ever came close to winning the post of UN cultural czar because he was an Arab and a Muslim, and that he fell short because the voters could not quite bring themselves to give the job to "a 22-year minister of a country where culture, education, health and science have regressed to the Dark Ages"?
And isn't that wider regression, emphatically encompassing the Egyptian media's viciously upgraded hostility to Israel, a decline Mubarak need urgently address?
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