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Thursday, April 17, 2014

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No moral equivalence between Israel and Egypt on peace

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New York Times columnist Tom Friedman has outdone himself.

In a July 3 piece, he argued that what he calls “a real peace” can be had between Israel and a Muslim Brotherhood-led Egypt if both change “some deeply ingrained behaviours.”

A real peace, as opposed to the current “cold” peace, would involve people-to-people harmony. To achieve this, Friedman maintains, Israel would have to give up the naïve idea that it can have peace with a Mubarak-like dictator instead of with 80 million Egyptians. The Brotherhood, mindful of the need to deliver economic well-being to the masses under its rule, would have to endorse liberal values such as tolerance, pluralism, minority and individual rights – which would also lead to accepting Israel.

Friedman admits that this sort of transformation for the “deeply illiberal” Brotherhood is a “long shot.” Still, he believes it’s possible, especially if “liberal” Egyptians push the Brotherhood in that direction.

If Friedman’s vision is anything other than a pipe dream, he’d have to provide even a faint indication of why the Brotherhood might be willing to overturn decades of core anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist ideology. But there’s not even a glimmer of that in his column.

Where Israel is concerned, Friedman is equally off base, but not because of any similar refusal to endorse the warmer ties he insists are essential. Indeed, Friedman’s failure to acknowledge the nearly complete rejection for over 30 years by a Mubarak-led Egypt of stronger ties with Israel is astonishing.

He ignores even the most basic facts. For instance, the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace agreement contained scores of articles concerning trade, tourism and cultural exchanges that would have resulted in the very people-to-people ties Friedman claims Israel avoided. Yet, it was Egypt that, with few exceptions, repeatedly stymied the implementation of these ties. Following Anwar Sadat’s assassination in 1982 at the hands of radical Islamists, Mubarak was hardly anxious to inflame anti-Israel attitudes further by establishing even lukewarm ties with the Jewish state.

To mention just two examples among many: Israeli efforts to encourage academic exchanges were rebuffed by the Egyptian intelligentsia under the control, variously, of anti-Israel leftists, Nasserites, and the Muslim Brotherhood (who also dominated many professional guilds, such as the lawyers’ and writers’ associations). In those rare cases when Egyptian academics did participate in conferences in Israel, they were blacklisted back home. Likewise for Egyptian journalists who dared to meet with Israeli colleagues: they were expelled from the journalists’ union upon returning to Cairo. The message was clear – deal with Israelis at your peril.

How could Friedman discount the huge number of Israelis who (until relatively recently) travelled, year after year, to Egypt (and well beyond merely the Sinai’s Red Sea tourist spots)? In one year alone (1999), more than 400,000 Israelis visited Egypt, while only a tiny fraction of that number came to Israel from Egypt. Egyptians were discouraged from doing so.

Those who claim that Egypt could not forge better ties with Israel because of the “plight of the Palestinians,” should remember that even in the heyday of the Oslo process when Israel and the Palestinians had entered a period of historic reconciliation, Egypt’s attitude towards Israel remained bitterly cold.

Israeli academic Dan Eldar captured the crux of the disparity in these attitudes in an essay he wrote about a decade ago for the Middle East Quarterly: “While Israel has yearned for a real peace including normalization of all its relations with Egypt, to be followed by other Arab countries, Egypt has framed the peace with Israel in its narrowest possible interpretation. Egypt has assiduously amassed the fruits of peace, primarily U.S. aid on a large scale. But it has refused to see its diplomatic and cultural relations with Israel as a fruit of peace. Indeed, to the extent it must maintain such relations, it regards them as an embarrassment and a burden.”

How pathetic, then, for Friedman to insist on a moral equivalence between Israeli and Egyptian responsibilities for advancing peace.

Paul Michaels is director of research and media relations for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.

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