Egypt embraces Gaza without alienating Israel

Jacky Hougy

The conflict in Gaza came at the right time for Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi.

A funny thing has happened. Egypt rushed to recall its ambassador from Tel Aviv as a sharp protest against Israel, and here, in Israel, not a single politician - the sane ones among them - has said a bad word about it. Minister of Defense Ehud Barak is not alone. If there is one man for whom the conflict in Gaza came at the right time, it is Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi.

The points that Morsi lost in recent months when it emerged that he could not stabilize Egypt's economy in short order as promised, he is winning back in foreign affairs. It is enough to look at the impressive solidarity package assembled for Gaza' residents.

A few hours after the assassination of Hamas's military commander Ahmed Jaabari, Morsi's office announced that it was recalling Egypt's ambassador to Israel for consultations. The day after the ambassador's recall to Cairo, Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Kandil went to Gaza. He visited the wounded and had some warm words to say in support from Gazans. After obtaining record exposure on "Al Jazeera", he returned home. And Morsi told Gaza's residents, "We are part of you, and you are part of us. We will never abandon you."

These are simple steps, almost required in times of emegency in the neighborly relations like the ones between Cairo and Gaza. It is no coincidence that these steps were taken with demonstrative assertiveness and publicity. Their purpose was to show every Arab citizen that Egypt, the former parent who became a stepmother, is again inviting its neglected children back to its breast. In none of these steps did Morsi directly confront Israel.

The Egyptian government immediately won credit from the public. The violent demonstrations that occurred during the era of Hosni Mubarak when the IDF fought the factions in Gaza were not seen this time in Cairo's squares. The protests in Egypt's streets were solely directed against the Zionist entity.

Today's Egypt is different

Morsi has shown that it is possible to take a step in favor of one of the sides in the military confrontation without losing the other side. He has succeeded in hugging the residents of Gaza while simultaneously making Israel appreciate him more. Former Minister of Defense Amir Peretz has said that Morsi is better for Israel than his predecessor, Mubarak. The Egyptian ambassador has been recalled? His absence is Cairo's problem rather than a headache for Jerusalem.

The message coming from Morsi's office has been well received by all the players in the arena. Today's Egypt is a different country. For Mubarak to send his prime minister on a solidarity visit to Gaza or ostentatiously recall his ambassador from Israel, something far greater than a few hours of strikes against Gaza would have had to happen. Mubarak despised Hamas and abused its representatives. For over a year, he refused to allow Hamas leaders to leave Gaza for Egypt. Hamas military commanders who entered Sinai were arrested by the men of the intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, and sent for lengthy interrogations.

If Mubarak sponsored anyone, it was Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu-Mazen), Hamas's political rival. But it is to Mubarak's credit that he operated in a harsher climate. Back then, Hamas was sponsored by Damascus, a closeness that restrained displays of pragmatism in Hamas ranks.

Shortly after the rebellion broke out in Syria, Hamas's Khaled Mashaal and his men abandoned Syrian President Bashar Assad. Morsi is delighted at the separation. His way was open to reconcile with Hamas without anyone trying to sabotage their relations.

Morsi's conduct in this matter should be treated with caution. There is no way of knowing how he will act if, for example, the IDF invades Gaza. An invasion by a foreign army into sovereign Arab territory always embarrasses the Arabs. It would hurt Egypt especially now, when sensitivity to ordinary people and Palestinian suffering are a key issue on the public agenda.

To correct a widespread misconception: Morsi is not a mediator in indirect contacts for a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. This task is the responsibility of his partners in running Egypt, the men of the military establishment. This is another aspect of the change in Egypt. Matters are handled jointly, in collaboration that is worth close study, by two camps which were bitter rivals until recently. Morsi does not have, at least not now, full authority in sensitive military and foreign affairs. When a cease-fire is declared, Morsi may be its best man, but it would not be a mistake to say at this time that the Egyptian president is not even present in the negotiating room.

The author is the Arab Affairs correspondent for “IDF Radio" (Galei Zahal).

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - - on November 19, 2012

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2012

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