An internal Israeli feud over Egypt’s attitude toward peace spilled over onto American shores last week, when two of Jerusalem’s top foreign-policy officials met with Jewish groups here and delivered diametrically opposing views of Egyptian intentions.
In the space of three days, members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations heard from Israel’s foreign minister, who praised Egypt’s helpful approach toward Gaza, and from the chairman of the Knesset foreign affairs and defense committee, who blasted Cairo for abetting terrorism.
Both men are leaders of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Likud party.
After Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom spoke favorably of Egypt’s newfound willingness to cooperate with Israel in securing Gaza after Israel’s planned withdrawal next year, Yuval Steinitz, the chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, criticized Cairo for supporting terrorism by allowing loads of weapons to flow into Gaza.
“Egypt has changed its attitude in the last year,” said Shalom, noting that he had met President Hosni Mubarak three times in the last six months. “They are more open, we talk a lot and we coordinate even if don’t have a formal agreement…. We believe the relationship is a strategic one.”
By contrast Steinitz argued that Egypt’s real policy was to “let the Israelis and the Palestinians bleed each other” and support terrorism by refusing to stanch the flow of arms to Gaza.
The stark contrast cast light on the simmering debate in Israeli political and security circles over Egypt’s role in a future settlement. After two decades of “cold peace” during which it stayed mostly on the sidelines of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Egypt is now deeply involved in what has become the only active track toward reducing the conflict, the Gaza disengagement plan.
Israeli and Egyptian officials have been meeting regularly at the highest levels since last spring to flesh out a workable solution for the “day after” the Israeli withdrawal in Gaza, which was under Egyptian control between 1948 and 1967. Egypt’s intelligence minister, General Omar Suleiman, has made dozens of trips to Israel and the territories to seek a cease-fire among Palestinian factions, an end to attacks on Israel and a post-withdrawal power-sharing arrangement. The next round of talks is scheduled in October, and Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit is scheduled to visit Jerusalem this week.
Additionally, Egypt is expected to provide training to Palestinian Authority police who will patrol Gaza after Israel leaves. The first group of trainees was to leave Gaza last week for Egypt, but was stopped at the border by Israeli troops under circumstances that were unclear.
Israel and Egypt have a shared interest in preventing Gaza from becoming a staging area for radical Islamic groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad — Israel because of terrorist attacks, and Egypt because of continued concern over its vibrant radical Islamic movement. Nonetheless, Egypt’s role has been received with ambivalence by some Israeli officials, including Sharon, who has accused his aides of entering what amounted to indirect negotiations with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat via Egyptian mediators.
Asked about the diverging Israeli assessments of his country, Hesham Nakib, the head of the press office at the Egyptian embassy in Washington, noted that the foreign minister is the official authorized to represent Israel’s position. He said Cairo’s commitment to preventing Gaza from becoming a terrorist hotbed was “clear and for the long term,” and that it would include training Palestinian security forces both in Gaza and in Egypt. He added that even Israeli officials concede the extreme difficulty of thwarting the weapons smuggling.
Steinitz said that while the Israeli government was “very polite” toward Egypt and the prime minister had made only tepid statements about the need for Egypt to stem the flow of arms, he was free to speak his mind.
Citing figures disclosed to his Knesset committee a few weeks ago by the head of the Shin Bet security service, Steinitz said the arms smuggled from Egypt into Gaza through underground tunnels during the past 14 months include 5,000 Kalashnikov rifles — “enough to arm two infantry battalions” — plus 330 anti-tank launchers, several hundred anti-tank rockets and tons of ammunitions. Steinitz said there were other weapons but that he was not at liberty to discuss them.
He claimed that such large quantities could not have escaped the vigilance of Egypt’s security forces, saying it was “ridiculous” for Egypt to try to intercept the shipments in the tunnels bordering Gaza rather than on their way through the Sinai Peninsula.
Steinitz pointed to Jordan’s decision to seal its border a few months after the beginning of the intifada as a vivid example of how such a crackdown could be implemented.
This is not the first time that Steinitz, who heads the Knesset’s most powerful committee, has come here to lobby against Egypt. Two years ago he fought to prevent the American sale to Egypt of Harpoon 2 missiles. He said this week that he was satisfied with the outcome of that earlier mission, since the missiles eventually sold were “sterilized” in such a way that they could not harm Israel.
He called Jewish groups to lobby against the planned purchase by Egypt of guided ammunition and long-range air-to-air missiles.
Morton Klein, the head of the hawkish Zionist Organization of America, applauded Steinitz’s stance.
“There is a massive arms smuggling operation through Egypt taking place right now,” he said. “Egypt has the largest Arab army in the region and we have been giving them $2.2 billion a year for the past 25 years. So they could stop the smuggling if they wanted to. I don’t see any reason to praise them.”
The ZOA issued a statement last week, using Steinitz’s remarks, to renew its call for the Bush administration to suspend economic aid to Egypt until Cairo cracks down on arms trafficking, tones down antisemitic rhetoric in the government-controlled press and returns its ambassador to Israel. Egypt’s envoy to Israel was recalled four years ago at the onset of the intifada.