ARAB LEADERS attend the 28th Ordinary Summit of the Arab League at the Dead Sea..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Israel’s relations with Egypt suffered an early summer chill this week, when Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul-Gheit dramatically declared opposition to Israel’s bid for a temporary UN Security Council seat.
In a briefing to the council on Tuesday devoted mainly to Israel’s continued “occupation,” Aboul-Gheit said that Israel’s receiving a seat on the Security Council would “give a push to the extremist camp in Israel and the settlers in Israel.” Moreover, he added, this would be premature, because “Israel cannot reap the fruits of peace before achieving peace.”
While Aboul-Gheit was presumably speaking for the Arab League, it cannot be ignored that he served as Egypt’s foreign minister during the final seven years of Hosni Mubarak’s rule, leaving his post in 2011 following the mass protests that toppled the aging ruler. As such, he is known to support a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians, while slamming the Netanyahu government for its settlement policy, which he said would make a viable Palestinian state of contiguous territories geographically impossible.
“These conditions leave no doubt that the plan and approach adopted by the current Israeli leadership is a plan for settlements, not a plan for peace,” he said. He topped off his startling remarks by asking, “If normalizing international status is so easy and without return, what will drive Israel to engage in serious negotiations to end the conflict?” He accused Israel of being responsible for the ills of Arab societies, saying it has “multiplied their problems,” “exhausted [their] ability to achieve development” and generated “volcanoes of anger” in Palestinian and Arab youth.
Are such astonishing remarks an expression merely of the Arab League’s traditional venom or do they also reflect a change in relations being revealed in a rather backhanded sort of way by the former Egyptian foreign minister? While Aboul-Gheit’s public persona offers no evident answer, a clue exists in the pervasive hostility that lingers throughout Egyptian society.
It should be recalled that, on November 3, 2015, Egypt voted for Israel joining the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, marking the first time Egypt has ever voted in Israel’s favor at the UN.
Nevertheless, according to an evidently still valid 2012 Brookings Institution report, “Support for Palestine and antagonism toward Israel are deeply ingrained in Egyptian political culture and national consciousness. An issue that transcends partisan politics and commands broad national consensus across all ideological and demographic lines, the Palestinian cause is as much a matter of identity as it is a question of public policy.
“Beyond sympathy for the plight of Palestinians, hostility toward Israel is also fueled by Egypt’s own past sacrifices in blood and treasure; four wars with Israel led to tens of thousands of Egyptian deaths and billions of dollars in destruction. Even after three decades of formal peace, most Egyptians still view Israel as a threat to national security and as an enemy, not only of Palestinians but of all Arabs.”
But why should Egypt suddenly object to its partner in peace achieving a two-year seat on the Security Council? The council is composed of five permanent members – the US, United Kingdom, France, Russia and China – and 10 non-permanent members elected for two-year terms by the General Assembly.
Israel is the only country in the Middle East that has never sat on the Security Council. This latest attempt to deny Israel equal treatment as a member in good standing of the UN reflects badly upon Egypt and the Arab League. It also should sound a warning to the Trump administration at the threshold of its peace initiative.
Aboul-Gheit reiterated as recently as February the league’s objection to the US moving its embassy to Jerusalem, which he told Egypt’s state news MENA would be “explosive for the situation in the Middle East.”
One might also recall Aboul-Gheit’s widely reported slip of the tongue at a Beirut press conference in April 2010.
Asked whether he had come to Lebanon to relay a warning from Israel, he replied that he had not come to relay a message from “the enemy to a sister Arab country.”
As Trump envoys Kushner and Greenblatt embark on another round of peace-seeking amid the ambiguity of relationships in the Middle East, we would be well to remember the risk of raising expectations too high to match the reality of the neighborhood where Israel resides.