Egypt wants the Israel Labor Party to join a national unity government under Ariel Sharon, in order to boost the prospects of an Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire agreement that Cairo and Jerusalem have been negotiating quietly in recent weeks.
“Our reading is that Israel will have a coalition government and that Sharon prefers to have a coalition between Likud, Labor and Shinui, rather than one with the religious parties,” Osama el Baz, senior political adviser to President Hosni Mubarak, told the Forward in a briefing Tuesday. “The presence of Labor in the government helps the course of moderation.”
Immediately after the polls closed Tuesday, Labor leader Amram Mitzna renewed his pledge not to be part of a unity government with the Likud. His stance is likely to be challenged by other Labor leaders in coming weeks, however.
El Baz told the Forward that Egypt immediately would renew its contacts with Israeli officials to reach an accord, without waiting for the results of Israel’s post-election coalition negotiations.
The agreement would grow out of the talks among Palestinian factions held in Cairo during the last month aimed at achieving a unilateral cease-fire. Egypt is hoping to win agreement from all major Palestinian groups to a one-year moratorium on any attacks in Israel and the territories. In exchange, Egypt is seeking to obtain an Israeli commitment to halt military operations against Palestinians.
Egypt’s Palestinian cease-fire effort has been running parallel to a British effort at forging Palestinian agreement on political reforms, El Baz noted. He said there had been no formal coordination or division of labor between Cairo and London, which he said had moved into the Palestinian reform effort in order to “fill a vacuum.” Cairo, he said, had taken the lead in cease-fire efforts because “instability in our own neighborhood affects us.”
The Cairo talks were suspended last Monday, the day before Israel’s Knesset elections, with Hamas announcing it would not accept a cessation of hostilities. However, similar announcements by Hamas have been released in recent weeks and have not prevented Hamas from attending further talks. El Baz said he was “hopeful” of reaching an agreement.
He said Cairo had decided to wait until after the Israeli elections before seeking an Israeli commitment.
“I believe we can now talk seriously to the Israelis,” he said, speaking shortly after Israel’s polls closed. “We want to see what they can do to facilitate a cease-fire, a flat cease-fire with no ifs and buts…
If we succeed, this would be a big step.”
Israeli officials have publicly dismissed the Cairo talks as essentially pointless. But El Baz said that in private communications Israeli leaders were “not dismissive, but skeptical, and there is a subtle difference there.”
He said he had held talks in Cairo in recent weeks with several ranking Israeli officials, including national security adviser Ephraim Halevy and Likud cabinet ministers Danny Naveh and Tzipi Livni. He also traveled to Israel, where he met with more than a dozen officials.
Egypt’s cautious optimism was also visible in an interview with President Hosni Mubarak in the Gulf newspaper Al Ittihad published Tuesday.
“We have to deal with the Israeli prime minister in a new way” in order to relaunch the peace process, Mubarak said. “Sharon will be re-elected and we must speak to him, because it would be inopportune to stay quiet…. We have some contacts but we have to intensify them to explain better to [Sharon] the situation and its seriousness…. His attitude could develop, the elections could open up a new chance to relaunch the peace process and put an end to the violence.”
El Baz, who has been Mubarak’s chief foreign policy advisor for two decades and was a senior adviser to Anwar Sadat before that, said the majority of Israelis and Palestinians favor a peaceful solution. He said the current “radicalization” on both sides was “temporary” and that moderation would rebound if the peace process can be put back on track.
El Baz praised Britain for its efforts to encourage Palestinian reforms, but he said the Bush administration should become more engaged in Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy, especially with the prospect of a war in Iraq looming.
Winning a cease-fire and renewing Israeli-Palestinian negotiations “would improve the atmosphere” elsewhere in the region, he said, by defusing Arab and Muslim hostility toward the administration’s Iraq policy. “It would enable us to separate the two issues,” he said.
He said that many people in the Middle East had difficulty “understanding” why Washington was so forceful about removing Saddam Hussein.
The forceful stance of the administration leads them to “strange conclusions — [the Americans] want to control the oil fields of the Middle East, they want to topple the regimes…. If you add the Israeli-Palestinian element, people get more confused…. and the hard-liners carry the day.”
He urged Washington to give the weapons inspectors in Iraq more time and warned against the feeling in some American circles that Saddam can be easily toppled.
“This is a big mistake,” he said, adding that any move would have to be “very calculated.” He lamented that the “day after” scenario had not been thought through and could result in “chaos” in the region.
El Baz was in New York as part of a delegation headed by Mubarak’s son and potential successor, Gamal Mubarak. They were to hold meetings with Bush administration officials, lawmakers and Jewish communal leaders to discuss Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian issue and antisemitism in the Egyptian media.
Last fall, American and Jewish officials criticized Egypt’s airing of a television miniseries, “Horseman Without a Horse,” that was based in part on the century-old antisemitic tract “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”
Several voices, including the Anti-Defamation League and Democratic Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, even raised the possibility of freezing American aid to Egypt if Cairo did not curtail antisemitic rhetoric in the government-controlled media.
El Baz took the initiative at that time to write three articles in Al Ahram, Egypt’s most influential newspaper, in which he cautioned Egyptians against buying into European antisemitic conspiracy theories and Holocaust denial.
While many observers saw El Baz’s foray as a calculated political move, the veteran envoy insists it was a personal decision prompted by his “worry” that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was becoming a religious battle rife with anti-Arab and anti-Jewish sentiments.
“I was worried some people in my country could not distinguish anymore between Israeli and Jews,” he said, adding that the criticism he received at home after writing his three articles had been “minimal.”