Israeli officials downplay Egypt's snubbing of Lieberman

Gheit had said Cairo not dealing with Lieberman, nor would he be welcome there.

lieberman doubtful 248.88 (photo credit: )
lieberman doubtful 248.88
(photo credit: )
Israeli diplomatic officials aren't quite sure what to make of the Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit's comments that Cairo does not intend to work with his counterpart Avigdor Lieberman. Gheit said in an interview Wednesday with Russia Today TV that they are not dealing with Lieberman nor would he be welcome in Cairo unless his positions change. "We don't know what it means at all," Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said over the weekend, concerning Gheit's remarks. "All we know is what he said (Wednesday). We still don't see how they are planning to work with Israel without the Foreign Ministry. We don't know what it means in point of fact." The Egyptian foreign minister said in the television interview that they "are dealing with the government of Israel and not Lieberman." But Lieberman's deputy Danny Ayalon downplayed Gheit's statement on Army Radio, arguing that the reality on the ground is more important than "paying attention to every statement" by Egypt. He suggested that Gheit's statement about Lieberman might have been an attempt to "balance out" the embarrassment Egyptians have recently faced vis a vis "Islamic elements." Egyptian officials have accused the Iranian-backed Hizbullah of organizing a cell in the country that allegedly plotted attacks against Egyptian and Israeli targets. Ayalon also said that he spoke to senior Egyptian officials, who have promised him that Lieberman will be allowed to visit Egypt. "I can promise you… that Foreign Minister Lieberman will visit Egypt," he said. "We will also receive Egyptian leaders here." Lieberman has declined to comment on the statement and a spokesman for the Egyptian Foreign Ministry could not be reached. On Wednesday, Gheit said that Lieberman "will not visit Cairo. He will certainly not visit as long as his positions remain as they are." A person must be aware that what he says has consequences, he said. Gheit added that he "cannot imagine Lieberman setting foot on Egyptian soil as long as his positions remain as they are." He was responding to a question about Lieberman's past comments concerning Egypt as well as the Israel Beiteinu chair's statement that Israel was not bound by the Annapolis commitments, a US-backed plan for Palestinian statehood. Lieberman has strongly criticized Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak for never visiting Israel, except for Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's funeral in 1995, saying he could "go to hell" if he did not want to come. He also once said Israel could attack the Aswan Dam in the event of a war with Egypt. Earlier this month, Gheit said he would not shake Lieberman's hand until he retracted such statements. During his speech when he took office last month, Lieberman attempted to relieve tensions with Egypt, calling it an important country in the Arab world and a key factor in maintaining regional stability. The Egyptian Foreign Ministry, however, responded negatively to Lieberman's attempt to mend his relations with Cairo, issuing a statement that Egypt "did not need any party to recognize its position or role, especially from those who have previously attacked it." Reactions in Israel Aboul Gheit's statement were varied. "Egypt cannot decide who is foreign minister of Israel," said Dore Gold, the head of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and a foreign policy adviser for Netanyahu in the mid 90s. "Israel's democratic process determined that Avigdor Lieberman is foreign minister. In order for Egypt and Israel to have mutually beneficial relations, they should respect Israel's democratic choices," he said. Former Israeli ambassador to Egypt Zvi Mazel said he thought Aboul Gheit's statements were an attempt to balance the current crisis between Sunni Egypt and the Iranian-backed Hizbullah. Egypt has accused Hizbullah of setting up a terrorist cell to conduct espionage and carry out attacks on its sovereign territory, a charge which the Shi'ite group denies. "When there is a problem among Arabs, for a certain time, they stop and attack Israel," Mazel said. The Egypt-Lieberman affair "is not really the core of the problem." Relations between Egypt and Israel are currently "apprehensive" but not just because of Lieberman, said Abdel Monem Said Aly, director of the Cairo-based Al-Ahram Center for Strategic and Political Studies. The relationship between the two countries is based on a number of variables, and most importantly the peace process and the situation in Gaza, he said. "I guess everybody now is waiting to see what does it mean to have a new Israeli cabinet, and what is their position on peace and security in the region," he said. "Anyone who understands the Israeli position knows that peace and the peace process is the domain of the prime minister" rather than the foreign minister. Diplomatic officials would have to check in with the Egyptian embassy in Tel Aviv as well as the Israeli embassy in Cairo to seek further clarification on Gheit's statements, Palmor of the Israeli Foreign Ministry said. "We'll have to see in the coming days what it really means," he added.