Vol. 2, No. 18 February 16, 2003
On the day after the Israeli elections, in a move both surprising and personally dangerous, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak telephoned Prime Minister Sharon to congratulate him on his election victory and to invite him to a summit meeting after the establishment of the new Israeli government. The Egyptian press later stated that the meeting would take place in Sharm el-Sheikh.
The move was surprising because just a few months ago the Egyptian president declared that as long as Ariel Sharon was prime minister, there was no hope for development of the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. In other words, Egypt had blacklisted the elected prime minister of the Jewish state and would wait for better days.
Dr. Osama al-Baz, Mubarak’s political advisor, sought to interpret his boss’s initiative with Sharon in the Egyptian daily al-Ahram, noting that from an Egyptian perspective there were two kinds of Israeli leaders: those belonging to the right, with whom there were no connections, and left-wing personalities such as Shulamit Aloni, Yossi Sarid, and Yossi Beilin, with whom the Arabs should strive for closer relations, given their ability to promote peace. Indeed, members of this group were hosted in Cairo just before the Israeli elections.
As the Israeli elections approached, together with published surveys predicting a decisive victory for Sharon and for the right in general, Mubarak understood that persistence in his negative policy toward Sharon meant having no involvement with Israel’s government until the completion of its new term of office (in another four years). On election day, the daily Al-Ittihad of the United Arab Emirates in the Persian Gulf published an interview with Mubarak in which he divulged that Egypt was about to alter its policy toward Sharon’s Israel. The next day he phoned Jerusalem.
Conceivably, the Egyptian president’s about-face was motivated by his desire to score points in Washington, which he is scheduled to visit in the next few weeks. It also may have been in reaction to Egypt’s failure to orchestrate a cease-fire, if only within the green line, among all the Palestinian factions meeting in Cairo.
Intense Arab Interest in the Israeli Elections
The Israeli Knesset elections attracted intense and unprecedented interest in the Arab world, both on the official level and among the general public in the different Arab states, an interest set against the background of the intifada and a possible American attack on Iraq.
Arab leaders closely followed developments on the Israeli political scene: Egypt and Jordan via their Tel Aviv embassies, and others through indirect channels, occasionally assisted by these two states. The Arab media devoted much time to the subject in television news broadcasts and talk-shows, including interviews with Arabic-speaking Jewish and Arab MKs and journalists.
In conversations in the hotels and caf?s of Cairo, Amman, Damascus, and Riyadh, the general public expressed unease over Sharon’s probable reelection. His lead in the polls in the days preceding the elections engendered an atmosphere of pessimism among the discussants, who asked whether anything could be done to affect the results and curtail the extent of the right’s victory.
Bashar Al-Assad’s Syria remained as dogmatic as in the days of his father Hafez Al-Assad, eschewing any hint of diversity in Israeli society. The Syrian establishment press disposed of the subject with a pithy declaration that “all of the Israeli leaders are war criminals” and that “Zionism is a danger to all the Arabs.”
Perhaps in an attempt to influence the outcome, Cairo hosted a representative of the Labor party’s new leader, who returned to Israel with a letter of greeting and an invitation to visit Egypt from President Mubarak to Amram Mitzna. Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher officially receiving Meretz leaders Yossi Sarid and Yossi Beilin, both of whom continued on to Amman for a parallel visit with Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher. Officials in both Cairo and Amman rejected criticism from Jerusalem that this constituted interference in Israel’s internal affairs, asserting that they were prepared to meet anyone willing to talk peace with them.
Arab Overtures to Israelis
Furthermore, the Arab states did not conceal their view that Israeli Arabs, otherwise referred to as the “1948 Arabs,” should galvanize their electoral strength to elect the largest possible number of Arab MKs to the Knesset, thereby fortifying the left-wing bloc. Hence, they called for participation in the elections, a position contrary to that of certain elements in the Islamic movement in Israel who advocated boycotting the elections. Egypt went as far as to invite Arab MKs to Cairo in order to hear their informed assessments of the Israeli domestic political scene.
Arab academics also made undisguised overtures to Israeli Arabs. Thus, for example, the dean of the political science faculty at Cairo University published messages for Israeli Arabs in the Jerusalem Palestinian newspaper Al-Quds.
Tarak Hassan, an Egyptian researcher on the subject of Israel, devoted at least six lengthy articles to the Israeli elections in Al-Ahram. The sixth article dealt with Jewish Israeli citizens, former residents of Arab states, whom he referred to as “Israeli-Arabs.” Hassan argued that Arab states had made a mistake in neglecting this branch of Israeli society, with whom they shared a common Arab-Islamic cultural background. Citing Israeli sources, Hassan bewailed the unprecedented solidarity of Israeli society engendered by the intifada of 2000, which worked to the Arabs’ disadvantage. Hassan claimed that Israelis of Arab origin felt that Palestinian attacks were directed against them since they rode public buses that were the targets of suicide bombers.
In the vigorous debates that ensued in Arab public forums, some publicists advocated making approaches to the “sane sector of Israel” (meaning the left) as a way of undercutting what they perceived as the consensus against the Palestinians, in an attempt to weaken the right-wing camp. “Everything possible must be done to isolate and weaken the Israeli extremists,” proclaimed Jordanian columnist Mahmoud Rimawi. Sami Karino wrote in the Jordanian daily Al-Rai that gambling on the Labor party was certainly worthwhile, even if it only led to a pause that provided breathing space for the Arabs, should Mitzna be unable to push through his peace plan.
Sharon is the Arab’s Fate
One of the more perspicacious pundits was Ghazi Al-Saadi, a political analyst at the Dar al-Jalil Center for Studies in Amman, who is also fluent in Hebrew. He maintained that neither the Palestinians nor the Arabs, in general, should rely on the Israeli election results as a route of escape from the dead end in which they find themselves. Even assuming that the Labor party led by Mitzna formed the next government, it would be unable to promote the peace process against the wishes of a powerful and vocal opposition from the right. On the other hand, a possible national unity government established by Sharon would be incapable of reaching peace. The result, in his opinion, is an ominous picture that holds no promise for the Arabs. Hence, the Arabs should look for other ways to extricate themselves from their current quandary. The problem is that no one has any alternatives. During a recent lecture in Cairo on the Israeli elections, one Egyptian academic confessed in despair, “Sharon would appear to be the Arabs’ fate, from which, as we know, there is no escape.”
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The author is a commentator on Arab affairs and a former diplomat at the Israeli Embassy in Jordan.