Wanderlust…

The International Reporting (and Life) Adventures of Vivian Salama

Egypt’s ambassador to Israel marks ‘new phase’ in relations

Posted by vmsalama on October 15, 2005

Career diplomat points to 38-year occupation of gaza as main cause of ensuing chaos after pullout
by Vivian Salama
Daily Star Lebanon
TEL AVIV – Over the last 50 years, perhaps one of the countries with which Egypt has had an incessant relationship of ups and downs is its neighbor to the east. The State of Israel, known to many as the land for a people without land, is now entering a new phase of relations with the Arab world in the wake of a decision by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to withdraw from the Gaza strip.Diplomatic relations between Israel and the Arab world have functioned as a barometer of the situation in the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank.
Countries such as Lebanon, Syria and Iran have permanently cut ties with the Jewish state, going so far as to refuse entry to tourists who bear an Israeli stamp in their passports. Other countries, namely neighboring Jordan and Egypt, have gone through spurts of diplomatic annulment but generally engage in low-level relations with Tel Aviv.  
Then last February, within days of the Israeli-Palestinian summit attended by Sharon and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas under the auspices of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah II, Egypt and Jordan – as a gesture of improving relations – announced they would reinstate ambassadors to Israel after a four year hiatus, sparked by the second intifada. Within weeks Egypt’s ambassador to Sudan was packing his bags.  
“In absence of the ambassador, you will legitimately feel the relationship between these two countries is less than normal,” said Mohammad Asem Ibrahim, who officially assumed the role as Egyptian Ambassador to Israel last April.  “In the last years, when there was the intifada and the reaction of the Israelis to the intifada, relations were greatly affected – not only because of the lack of the ambassador, but the situation in general. We are moving toward a new phase now.”  
Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom called the appointment part of a growing “process of conciliation” between Israel and its Arab neighbors, adding that his country hopes to one day forge an alliance with 10 Arab states. Egypt was the first Arab state to make peace with Israel when it signed the Camp David Accord in 1979.  Morocco, Tunisia, Oman and Qatar had forged low-level diplomatic ties with Israel before the 2000 uprising between Israelis and the Palestinians. All but Qatar rescinded ties upon the start of the second intifada.

Mohammad Asem Ibrahim, Egypt’s Ambassador to Israel

Flash forward five years: violence has greatly subsided, and Israeli troops and settlers are packed up and out of the Gaza Strip. While these recent developments have given the Arab world – and particularly Palestinians – much to celebrate, the shared border between Egypt and Gaza at Rafah has become a great cause for concern. Israeli officials have recently spoken out in fear that underground tunnels left over from decades of occupation could pave the way for the free flow of weapons, drugs – or worse – terror suspects in and out of Egypt.  
“It gives the impression that Mr. Silvan Shalom was criticizing Egypt, that we are not doing enough and should do more, but I was assured by the foreign affairs minister that he had not said so,” noted Ibrahim. “There was occupation for 38 years, and since this occupation has ended abruptly without proper coordination with the other parties, it is normal to have some disorder, some chaos.”  
Ibrahim is quick to dismiss concerns that Rafah could be a gateway to extremists looking to enter Sinai, particularly following reports of a growing Al-Qaeda cell on the peninsula. Rather, he says, the presence of 750 Egyptian troops in Rafah is similar to regular protocol along any political border between two nations.  
“They have border soldiers to look after the borders to make sure there is no illegal smuggling, so it is a normal thing. It is not there as a force to prevent and attack or to be ready to launch an attack,” he added. “Egypt can protect itself. We take the Israelis and the Palestinians as neighbors, not as enemies or potential enemies.”  
Eager to stress the magnitude of the Gaza withdrawal, Ibrahim insisted that politicians and journalists alike do not get so wrapped up in a game of “he said-she said,” but rather dedicate energy and attention to the economic crisis in Gaza.  Last week the World Bank proposed building a roadway that would ultimately link Gazans with their brothers and sisters in the West Bank. Sharon retorted, suggesting a railway that begins in Rafah and ends in Ramallah might be a rational alternative, given security concerns.  
More urgent, Ibrahim said, are the issues surrounding the airports and harbors in Gaza, and ensuring the movement of goods and people freely and safely. Rebuilding Israel’s harbor, the Ashdod Port, for the easy flow of imports and exports should be a priority. “The right of the Palestinians to move freely; the right of the Israelis to feel secure and the right of the Egyptians to control their border – this is the balance,” he said. “When we talk about whether it’s going to be a road or a pipeline or a tube or what have you, I think it is a little bit early. People in Gaza have to have something that they want to keep – that they will be afraid to lose – that they don’t want to be destroyed again.”  
And it’s not just a Palestinian cause. Ibrahim said that peace and security in Palestine ultimately ensures the security of Egypt, Israel and the region in the long run. Earlier this month Egypt’s Finance Minister Youssef Boutros-Ghali made note of the high cost of investment in Gaza, particularly for Egyptians.  
“The costs are higher than in India,” Ghali told AFP ahead of the annual World Bank and International Monetary Fund conference. “Anyone who wants to invest there faces this problem. We have difficulties to convince investors because the costs of business are too high and the market is too small.”  
“This is not truly and completely an economic project in which you count the rate of growth and the degree of profit and the return of capital,” noted Ibrahim.  “It is more complicated than that, and it is worth the effort. It’s a matter of security for the people of Palestine, Israel and Egypt.”  
Security, Ibrahim stressed, is of vital importance to the Israeli psyche, far beyond the comprehension of anyone who does not live with them on a day-to-day basis.  Settled on a tiny plot of land that is completely surrounded by Arab nations with whom relations have been turbulent at best, six million people inhabit what is virtually a military zone, as all citizens – men and women – are put through military service and permitted to bear arms. And so, for more than half a century, the people with no land and a people with a religious obligation to defend their land – have worked toward some semblance of coexistence.  Ibrahim tells of one of his first experiences at an Israeli checkpoint. Driving late at night in a diplomatic vehicle, a woman, whom the ambassador says could not have been older than 17, approached Ibrahim’s driver. Her helmet light flashing brightly in the driver’s eyes, the young girl spoke abruptly while holding a machine gun within inches of the driver’s nose. They were permitted to drive away, but Ibrahim said such an occurrence is by no means rare.  
Perhaps Israelis have legitimate concerns surrounding their security in Egypt, Ibrahim speculated, particularly following a series of terror attacks over the past year; the first – almost exactly one year ago in Taba – left 34 people dead, among them 24 Israelis. On September 30, Israel’s National Security Council for anti-terrorism affairs announced “concrete evidence” of plotted kidnappings of Israeli nationals vacationing in Sinai. As a result, tens of thousands of Israeli tourists reportedly fled from Sinai within two days of the initial report.  
“Israelis have inherited the Jewish trauma for the last 2000 years,” Ibrahim pointed out. “It is for psychological reasons – the notion of security, or the lack of it, and the sensitivity for Israelis is higher than for any other citizen in the world … because of their history, because of their limited number, because of their suspicions from the neighbors. This is the only country I know of where if you go to any little cafe you have to be checked. You will only feel it if you live in Israel and deal with Israelis.”  
Security is a concern for everyone. Ibrahim’s predecessor Ihab al-Sharif, who held the role of ambassador to Israel prior to the uprising, had been assigned to his new post in Baghdad a matter of weeks when, in July of this year, Al-Qaeda assassins kidnapped and eventually executed him – calling him “ambassador to the infidels.” Ibrahim refused to discuss the incident, but noted President Mubarak’s advice to him to always be patient when handling security measures in Israel.  
Ibrahim in no way underestimates his role. The only ambassador to serve over 60 years of age and the only ambassador to hold four consecutive posts – in Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan and now Israel – he considers himself lucky to receive this late-career challenge. Unaccompanied by his wife because she is Egypt’s ambassador to Switzerland, Ibrahim surrounds himself with a few new friends and the handful of Egyptian citizens living in Israel.  
He confessed his hopes of bringing young Egyptian Hebrew students to work in the embassy to gain first-hand exposure to the language, as well as to diplomacy.
“I am lucky to be – for the fourth consecutive time – a representative for Egypt to a neighboring country, an important country, a common border country, a controversial relation and this is what I like,” he said, a smile growing on his face. “I think I might fall asleep if things are too relaxed.”
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