Reporter's notebook: Egypt's greatest fear: New Israeli immigrants

Veteran Egyptian diplomat claims Israel's need for more land is far more threatening than Iranian nukes.

sinai 88 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
sinai 88 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
The warm smile, anecdotal stories and freshly-squeezed lemonade almost make me miss the fact that I have just been told I am more dangerous than Iran's nuclear program. It's a startling idea for a petite Jewish woman like myself, who has traveled briefly to this large Arab country from Israel, where doomsday headlines about Iran are printed on an almost daily basis. But it's not unusual on the street in Cairo, where a pop song, "I Hate Israel," can be heard blaring from car radios amid the constant honking of their horns. Sitting in his Cairo office, veteran Egyptian diplomat Gamal Bayoumi dismisses with a wave of his hand the popular Israeli political belief that among moderate Muslim Arabs like himself, a nuclear Iran is fast replacing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the destabilizing force in the region. "Be serious. Iran is a threat to me?" he says with an incredulous look on his face. Then, almost nonchalantly, he looks straight at me from across his desk and remarks that he is more worried about the influx into Israel of new immigrants like myself. "Do you think you [Israel] can adopt all the Jews in the world? Then you will need more land, and that is what is frightening us, more than the nuclear weapons of Iran." He calculates that the Iranian nuclear program is still five years away from completion. "Let us wait and see. The immediate threat is this one." I assure him that Israel is not interested in expanding beyond its existing borders. "You think so?" he says. "I'm not so sure. If you want to continue this policy of accepting more and more Jewish immigrants, then you will be forced to find places for them." As an adviser to Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa, the former assistant foreign minister from 1995-2001 and the former head of that office's Israel desk in 1994, Bayoumi comes to the topic of Israel with a unique perspective on the matter. Although it has been close to 30 years since former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat made peace with Israel, friendliness toward Israelis is not something that one takes for granted among Egyptians. Like his country, Bayoumi appears to have a love-hate relationship with Israel. When he started in the Foreign Ministry in 1961, Bayoumi refused to shake hands, let alone converse, with an Israeli as he easily does now, some 46 years later, when he clears close to two hours to speak with me. As the kind of person who answers every question with a story, he peppers the interview with stories about past Israeli politicians and proudly counts Israelis as his friends. He boasts of the photographs he has of himself with Vice Premier Shimon Peres and former President Ezer Weizman. "I believe the elite can do it," says Bayoumi, but he cautions, "Do not ask a layman to fall in love with you Israelis." Bayoumi blames that animosity toward Israel on its actions against the Palestinians in the territories and on its attacks on Lebanon. "Why should we not be upset if Israel attacks Gaza?" he says. On top of these questions, another one burns in his mind: If Israel truly pursues peace, why does it possess nuclear weapons? I tell him that Israel has always refuted this charge. "Yes, okay," he says, but adds that he is unimpressed by this denial, given that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made a statement in December which many interpreted as confirmation that these nuclear weapons exist. "Olmert said it. It was a slip of the tongue, but he said it. It is not a secret that our friends in Israel have 300 warheads. You have a treaty with Egypt. You have a treaty with Jordan - and if you want it, a treaty with Syria. Where will you use [the nuclear weapons]? This must be explained," he says. It is not difficult for Bayoumi to see Israel as an aggressive nation, given his view of the Six-Day War. "Israel started that war, contrary to what was announced from the Israeli side," says Bayoumi. It's hard to let go of his fear of Israel, given that the country has not finalized its map. "If I am an Israeli, I should think of drawing my borders," he says. Until that happens, he adds, "you are in a position to occupy more land." To illustrate how confusing the lack of borders can be on an international level, he recalls a story that occurred in the initial aftermath of the Six Day War, when Israel asked the US to help secure its borders. Former US president Lyndon B. Johnson responded with a query about which lines on the map were covered by the request. In the 1970s, Bayoumi says, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry had no problem using statements by Israel's own officials to create propaganda material on this subject. Using his hands, he shows how it created a series of maps that showed Israel's expanding appetite for land. Israel's failure to finalize its borders and to abide by United Nations resolutions strengthens his belief that under international law, "the whole country is illegal." As a result, Egypt's recognition of the state can only be considered "de facto," he says. Still, he says, he supports the right of Israel to exist within the pre-1967 borders. He is proud, he says, that Egypt was the first Arab country to make peace with Israel. When Sadat first traveled to Jerusalem in 1977, Bayoumi recalls that he was neither with him nor against him. "It took me some years to discover his wisdom," says Bayoumi. Among others things, peace with Israel has allowed Egypt to strengthen its ties with the West and to develop strong economic relations with the US and Europe. After leaving the Foreign Ministry in 2001, Bayoumi worked to secure an association agreement with the EU, which established free trade between the two countries. He notes that he does not harbor the same complex feelings with respect to the US and Europe as he does with Israel. As a young Egyptian diplomat posted abroad in the 1960s, he thought nothing of sneaking into the US Embassy to watch movies, in spite of the enmity that existed at the time between Egypt and America. When it came to Israel, however, he recalls how upset he was at his secretary when she accidentally invited an Israeli diplomat to one of their receptions. "If you had come to me before Sadat, I wouldn't talk to you. He broke the ice for you," says Bayoumi. Now, although he has met me only the day before, he introduces me to those who occasionally interrupt the interview with the statement: "This is a friend from Israel." Then he adds, "Can you shake hands with her?"