Worrying signs from Cairo

Probably the most worrying facet revealed by the interview, as well as by the speech in the General Assembly, is that the elected president of Egypt seems consistently to refuse to address Israel or Israelis directly.

Mohamed Morsi (photo credit: Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters)
Mohamed Morsi
(photo credit: Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters)
Last week, in a New York Times interview, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi said that if Washington was asking Egypt to honor its treaty with Israel, Washington should also live up to its own Camp David commitment to Palestinian self-rule.
Lately, in his speech at the General Assembly of the United Nations, the Palestinian cause was given priority even over the bleeding conflict in Syria.
These statements raise concerns for three reasons: First, they imply that adherence to the treaty with Israel is some kind of concession toward the US that needs to be matched by US steps in favor of the Palestinians. I would think that adhering to the treaty is in Egypt’s own self-interest.
After all, under this treaty Israel withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula and recognized Egypt’s full sovereignty over it.
International law, justice and dignity, principles often mentioned in Mr.
Morsi’s speech, demand that Egypt not hold the territorial gains achieved in the peace treaty while disavowing its obligations under it. True, the Camp David Accords, which laid the foundations for the peace treaty, were not limited to achieving peace between Egypt and Israel but rather drew up a framework for peace in the Middle East, the West Bank and Gaza included.
However, the treaty unequivocally states that the parties undertake to fulfill in good faith their obligations under it, without regard to action or inaction of any other party and independently of any instrument external to this treaty. Creating a linkage between obligations under the peace treaty and external obligations towards the Palestinians is legally flawed.
Second, looking at the Camp David principles for a peaceful settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one may wonder what Mr. Morsi found missing. The framework envisioned a transitional period during which the inhabitants of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip would elect a self-governing authority and receive autonomy, while Israeli military forces withdraw and redeploy to specified security locations.
Later, negotiations on the final status of these territories should have been conducted.
Indeed, this framework, designed in 1978, was not implemented for many years. Different opinions may exist as to whom to blame. However, looking at the Oslo Accords and the Israeli- Palestinian interim agreements, signed by Israel and the PLO in 1993 to 1995, one finds the same principles as prescribed in the Camp David Accords. A Palestinian elected authority was established, received powers and self-governed the Palestinians while the Israeli forces did withdraw from the Palestinian population centers to specified locations.
As to the final status negotiations, several rounds of talks were held over the years with little success and much bloodshed in between. Nowadays, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has reiterated his willingness to negotiate on the final status with PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas, without any pre-conditions. There is no dispute that Mr. Abbas refuses to negotiate unless Israel freezes all settlement activity in the West Bank.
Indeed, one may consider growth in Israeli settlements in the West Bank an impediment to peace, but the Palestinians have agreed that the issue of Israeli settlements will be resolved with other major issues in the permanent status negotiations.
The interim agreement does not stipulate it as a pre-condition for negotiating, nor do the Camp David Accords.
Furthermore, Netanyahu has declared, in a speech at Bar-Ilan University in 2009, that under certain conditions, Israel will agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state. This is more than the Israeli government was willing to pledge to in the Camp David Accords.
Third, and probably the most worrying facet revealed by the interview, as well as by the speech in the General Assembly, is that the elected president of Egypt seems consistently to refuse to address Israel or Israelis directly.
In his victory speech, he said Egypt would respect all its international agreements, but refrained from mentioning Israel. Later, there was the strange affair of the exchange of letters Morsi conducted with President Shimon Peres.
After the elections in Egypt president Peres sent a letter congratulating Morsi and adding greetings for the approaching Muslim month of Ramadan. The Israeli press reported that Mr. Morsi sent a reply letter, wishing stability and security to all the nations in the region, including Israel – but the Egyptian president’s spokesperson denied such a letter existed.
Peres’s office then released the cover letter attached to Mr. Morsi’s letter by the Egyptian embassy in Israel, and the letter itself. The troubling question is why Mr. Morsi found it necessary to deny even the exchange of season’s greetings with Israel. With all the “bad blood” between them, even Abbas had sent such greeting to his Israeli counterparts.
Moreover, why doesn’t Morsi even say the word “Israel” in public, even when it is clear he is talking about Israel? One may suspect that this has something to do with the Muslim Brotherhood’s traditional ideology not recognizing Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state in the predominantly Muslim region. Avoiding calling Israel by its self-determined and internationally recognized name is an extreme manifestation of non-recognition. Iran does it explicitly calling Israel “the Zionist entity” but one did hope that among moderate Arab countries this practice would be outdated.
Morsi has a vast mission addressing Egypt’s internal problems. If he has decided to postpone any reference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict so he can focus on Egypt, that would be understandable. However, if Egypt’s newly elected president wishes to regain the leading role his country had in the Middle East peace process, he should speak to Israelis, not about Israel. Morsi should assure the Israeli public that although he is a devout Muslim, he does not share the Islamic Republic of Iran’s declared aspiration to wipe Israel off the map.
Egypt is the biggest Arab state. If Morsi uses his position and the esteem he has in the eyes of Muslims to bring the Palestinians to the negotiation table, while gaining the trust of the Israeli public, he may make his mark in history.The author is a IDF colonel (res.) and an attorney. He is the former head of the IDF’s International Law Department.