Mustapha Khalil and our vital peace with Egypt

The death this week of the former prime minister of Egypt, Mustapha Khalil, induces me to look into the progression of our relations with Cairo.

mustapha khalil 88 (photo credit: )
mustapha khalil 88
(photo credit: )
When it comes to recollections from the past, no one writing in this newspaper can surpass Yehuda Avner. His article last week on prime minister Levi Eshkol and the Six Day War was a gem. I am, therefore, reluctant to go down the road of recollections, but the death this week of the former prime minister of Egypt, Mustapha Khalil, induces me to look into the early days of our relations with Cairo and the way those relations have developed over the years. On the last day of President Anwar Sadat's historic visit to Jerusalem in 1977, he suggested to prime minister Menachem Begin that each side appoint someone to be responsible for maintaining contact with the other side. Begin liked the idea and wanted to appoint a public figure or an ambassador, albeit not officially as there were, of course, at that time no diplomatic relations between Egypt and Israel. "No," Sadat said to him. "It must be kept quiet. It should be a secret channel, between you and me." Sadat said he would appoint Mustapha Khalil, who was then head of the ruling party, to be his "man"; Begin chose me as his. I was working at that time in a position in which activities of a confidential nature were the norm, and it was not difficult for me to make frequent trips to Cairo to meet with Khalil without arousing any untoward attention. Shortly after Sadat appointed him to be the point man in all matters concerning Israel, Khalil became prime minister, but asked to continue the contact with Israel through me. It was not so easy for me to meet him in the Prime Minister's Office, but luckily he kept a more discreet place for such meetings, and we met on a number of occasions in his apartment in Cairo's Zamalek district. Prime minister Khalil headed the negotiations with Israel, and he and prime minister Begin quarreled over one of the issues under discussion. The minor altercation between them, as can happen between wives and husbands and also between prime ministers, blew up beyond all proportions. Begin refused to talk to Khalil and Khalil would have nothing more to do with Begin. Shortly afterwards Begin was invited to Cairo by Sadat and the question of his nonrelations with his Egyptian counterpart became acute. Although Egyptian prime ministers usually involve themselves in domestic affairs, leaving high policy to the president, Khalil was known to spearhead the talks with Israel, and there was no way Begin could go on an official visit to Egypt without talking to him. So Begin asked me to accompany him to Cairo and to smooth over matters with Khalil; he did not want to speak to Khalil before knowing how the Egyptian premier would react. Begin, as all who knew him will testify, was the ultimate gentleman; the only person in the Middle East who could challenge him for that title was Khalil. It was not a difficult task to bring these two gentlemen together again, and the visit, not an easy one for Begin, was crowned with success, despite the tremendous opposition that existed in Cairo at the time to the budding relations between the two countries. THAT OPPOSITION was given voice - and print - in the Egyptian media, which was willing to publish the most atrocious stories imaginable about Israel. It continued to do so long after the peace agreement was signed and ambassadors were exchanged; it continues to do so today. At a time when the Egyptian ambassador in Israel, Muhammad Bassiouni, appeared on Israeli television week after week, the Israeli ambassador in Cairo was shunned by the media, and all our efforts to have positive stories about Israel published in Egypt came to naught. As an example of stories written about Israel, take, for example, the editorial that appeared in the Egyptian Gazette - not an opposition newspaper - on August 16 last year, shortly after yet another terrorist attack in Sinai: "Though it withdrew from Sinai some 25 years ago, Israel still cannot give up its ambitions in the Egyptian peninsula," the article claimed. "Sometimes it sends its agents there disguised as tourists and others, in order to buy land for investment projects via multinational companies. Some analysts believe that Israeli fingers were involved in the Taba, Sharm e-Sheikh and Dahab explosions in the past few years... The Israelis must have been behind these explosions, as, shortly beforehand, the Israeli authorities had issued a warning to its citizens not to travel to Sinai. Israel wants to destabilize Egypt..." With such accusations in the press commonplace, we could be excused for raising our hands in frustration and disgust. Anti-Israel films in cinemas and on television have added to this continuing onslaught on anything connected to Israel. The professional unions have warned members not to have anything to do with us. And, on top of it all, the Egyptian intellectuals, who should have been in the forefront of the quest for peace and normal relations, had led the anti-Israel assault. In a conversation I once had in his home in Cairo, I asked the doyen of Egyptian intellectuals, Muhammed Sid Ahmed, "If we reach an agreement with the Palestinians to their satisfaction, will the Egyptian intellectuals then cease their hostility?" He thought for a moment and answered, "That will alleviate the situation somewhat." He could not bring himself to say more than that. MUSTAPHA KHALIL wanted a much warmer peace, but he was acutely conscious of Egypt's isolation in the Arab world as a result of its peace with Israel. "I don't like the PLO and their terrorist acts," he told me more than once at the time when the PLO had not yet come to Oslo. "I understand your opposition to them. But for the sake of peace with the entire Arab world you will have to compromise with them. And we Egyptians cannot ignore the plight of the Palestinians." He courageously presided over a conference that had 50 Israeli delegates - a first in Cairo - organized by Egyptians, Jordanians, Palestinians and Israelis dedicated to peace between Israel and the Arab world. Our peace with Egypt has, indeed, been a cold peace. However, those who criticize it should realize the tremendous change that peace between Egypt and Israel brought about. With Egypt at peace with us, the Arab world could no longer contemplate a military confrontation with Israel. From 1979 onward the countdown to a peaceful solution of our conflict with the Arab world began, and it made no difference if the peace with Egypt was cold or warm; the mere fact that an Israeli Embassy was operating in the heart of Cairo - and the Egyptian flag was flying in Tel Aviv - made all the difference. President Sadat and prime minister Begin were the great architects of that peace. Mustapha Khalil, with his vision of peace, helped to bring it about. He was a great Egyptian patriot, and a true friend of Israel.