Ehud Olmert to 'Post': Egypt's Mubarak was a friend to Israel

Mubarak believed that peace with Israel was an essential pillar needed to achieve internal stability in Egypt. As a result, he was particularly sensitive to Israel’s political and security-based move

Hosni Mubarak (photo credit: REUTERS)
Hosni Mubarak
(photo credit: REUTERS)
One of the most disturbing images in my memory is of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, as he sits in an animal cage that had been placed in the center of a special courtroom where he was being tried for his alleged actions against the Egyptian people. I will never forget seeing Mubarak’s look of helplessness as he experienced humiliation and insult. In situations like these, it is customary to use worn-out phrases, such as “Thus passes the glory of the world,” or the Talmudic parable about how a person can fall from the height of success to the depths of depression.
This picture was more powerful than these phrases. In one glance, one could see the distress and instability that our neighboring countries experienced in recent years, and could experience again in the future. Mostly, it reflected the personal and brutal fate of leaders in these countries. Mubarak was in this sense a symbol, and his death has caused me deep sadness.
I met Mubarak for the first time when I was leading negotiations with his then-finance minister Youssef Boutros-Ghali and his commerce minister Rashid Mohamed Rashid. These talks led eventually to the signing of a cooperation agreement between Israel and Egypt regarding free-trade zones in Egypt, which benefit from Israel’s free-trade agreements with the US. This was a three-way deal. With approval from the US, Israel spread its patronage over industrial areas – primarily export of textiles and apparel that were produced in Egypt – and then exported products to the US according to Israel’s free-trade agreement with the US.
This deal created an extensive export corridor leading from Egypt to the US, but essentially enabled Egypt to establish factories in large industrial zones, which provided employment to hundreds of thousands of Egyptians. Israel benefited from this agreement, even though the last few textile factories in Israel were forced to close down, since they couldn’t compete with the low cost of production in Egypt.
Because all Egyptian exports to the US were required to contain at least 11% inputs from Israel, in products that were sent to the US, the total amount of inputs was much larger than the level of Israeli exports to Egypt up until that point. We’d signed a similar agreement with Jordan at an earlier date. In both cases, the relative advantage of Israel-US trade agreements helped us establish fruitful and beneficial business cooperation with our neighboring countries, with which our relations were a central pillar of security and stability throughout the entire Middle East.
The agreement with Egypt led me to open up a direct channel of communication with the Egyptian president. When I became prime minister, I nurtured this channel and I had a close personal relationship with Mubarak.
Not a week went by without the two of us talking on the phone. I also traveled to meet with Mubarak personally a number of times, mostly to Sharm e-Sheikh, but also a few times to Cairo.
Mubarak believed that peace with Israel was an essential pillar needed to achieve internal stability in Egypt. As a result, he was particularly sensitive to Israel’s political and security-based moves. Egypt, with a population of close to 100 million people, is a poor country. A large proportion of its citizens are devout Muslims who are subject to ongoing indoctrination by radical elements, for whom Mubarak was foreign in both style and policy. Certainly, all of Mubarak’s friends, including the US and Israel, were enemies to be fought against.
MUBARAK LIVED in constant tension between his desire to foster relationships with comfortable partners in the West, especially the US and Israel, and his effort to keep the violent, jealous and aggressive Muslim Brotherhood from rising up against him. The Muslim Brotherhood for a long time had been attempting to oust Mubarak from his throne through populist and undemocratic means, so that they could rebuild Egypt as an Islamic republic, similar to Iran.
We who live in the region understand the sensitivities of the various populations that make up neighboring countries, and could accept practices that don’t mesh with our own democratic way of life. It was easy enough for us to brush off actions taken by Egypt’s Mubarak-led government when it would take action against its internal opposition in Egypt. This acceptance, however, was an indication of a lack of understanding of the various elements that affect the underground currents in Egypt’s society, in which extremist, religious Islamist elements could undermine the stability of the entire Middle East.
Mubarak was especially harmed by criticism expressed against him and his government by American presidents and leaders of other countries, including a number of public leaders, senators, congresspeople, and heads of Jewish organizations.
He would often tell me during our private conversations how bitter he felt when president Bush, who supported democratic regimes, would criticize the Egyptian administration for actions it took against the Muslim Brotherhood.
“Doesn’t he see what his support of democracy did in the Gaza Strip?” Mubarak asked me on more than one occasion. Bush insisted that Hamas participate in Palestinian elections.
“And what was the result?” Mubarak asked me. “Is Gaza more democratic now?” In unbridled anger, Mubarak continued, “Does he want a similar outcome in Egypt? Will the Muslim Brotherhood be more democratic in his eyes?” He knew full well what kind of future that would entail.
The Arab Spring in the Middle East gave rise to a well-organized and effective protest movement established by the Muslim Brotherhood. Within days, Mubarak was forced to resign. The US administration, in the early days of president Barack Obama’s leadership, and under the guidance of secretary of state Hillary Clinton, withdrew the last bit of its support for Mubarak, which finally led to his downfall.
The road from the presidency to sitting in a cage with his sons was short. It was so painful to see these images flash before my eyes on the TV screen. This might have been considered the natural and predictable occurrence of events for a country like Egypt, but in the eyes of an Israeli, it was extremely difficult to watch, especially considering how for more than 30 years Mubarak had maintained peaceful relations with Israel, even in times when this meant implementing measures that seemed inappropriate.
On more than one occasion I was asked – and this has been a subject of much public discourse in Israel – how it was that throughout all those long years Mubarak never saw it fit to visit Israel except for a short visit to southern Israel, including Beersheba, at the beginning of his career as well as a visit of just a few hours to honor the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin at his state funeral in Jerusalem.
MUBARAK, WHO operated with an iron fist inside Egypt in an effort to thwart every attempt at harming relations with Israel, could not afford to provoke the latent, but widely supported opposition that was always searching for an opportunity to rile up public opinion in Egypt against a government that boasted of its strong relationship with the Zionist state that was “trampling on the Palestinian people.”
Of course, we could protest the cold shoulder Mubarak was forced to turn toward Israel when, together with other countries that were hostile to Israel, Egypt would vote against Israel in the UN and the Security Council. We cannot, however, ignore the deep-rooted conflicts in the Middle East. While here in Israel we live our lives of relative comfort that reaches Western standards, the countries that surround us are constantly plagued by the threat of radical groups, even as they yearn to build bridges of cooperation with the world to which we belong.
Mubarak was brave and wise enough to maintain for years a balance between the radical elements in his country and cooperation with Israel. We didn’t make it easy for him, and neither are we making it easy for his successor with respect to everything connected to the Egyptian regime’s domestic and international relations, especially with Israel and the US.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi forcefully removed the Muslim Brotherhood with the army that was following his orders and reinstated a more responsible, religiously moderate regime that would cooperate and carry out diplomatic and military relations with Israel. He deserves to be specially commended for this, as does his predecessor, Mubarak, who was the one who created the model for this relationship.
Peaceful relations with Egypt, which were maintained by Mubarak in the past and which are now under the direction of Sisi, are under constant threat, first and foremost from the opposition that is alive and well in Egypt. Its power is greater than it appears, especially to those looking from outside and afar, and can be seen to a great extent in our conduct and our understanding of their sensitivities, and in consideration of their distress. We can express this in our restraint in everything we do, especially with respect to sensitive public opinion issues in Egypt and moderate Sunni countries, including neighboring Jordan.
The current Israeli government, which is operating in an inconsiderate and lawless manner, and is carrying out incessant provocations, could harm our relations with Jordan and Egypt to such an extent that they would become irreparable. This could happen if the government doesn’t begin acting with restraint regarding its actions in the territories and its policies toward the Palestinians, especially in Judea and Samaria.
Egypt is currently functioning as a mediator between us and Hamas in an effort to lower the level of flames that could reignite the Middle East. By threatening to unilaterally annex the West Bank, Israel is in essence throwing a lit match that could spread a wildfire throughout the entire Middle East region. After we destroy our relationship with Jordan and Egypt, of course, we will blatantly blame them, while ignoring our own contribution to this state of affairs and the price the entire region will be forced to pay.
Now that Mubarak has passed away, we must bow our heads in gratitude and thanks to the leader who was a greater friend of Israel’s than he could show. We must accept the responsibility to maintain stable relations with our neighbors, even if that means the loss of temporary electoral achievements, whose value is not worth damaging our national interests.
The writer was the 12th prime minister of Israel.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.