From Israel’s rebirth in 1948 to the Camp David Accords of 1978, Egypt waged a series of wars against Israel and worked with many other nations to economically and politically isolate Israel. Although the leaders of Egypt from Sadat to General Sisi have maintained a peaceful relationship with Israel since then, anti-Israel sentiment seemed to remain high in the Egyptian public.
Former Israeli Ambassador, Haim Koren, served as the Israeli Ambassador to Egypt from 2014 to 2016. During his time in Egypt, he was invited to dinner at the home of a member of the Egyptian Parliament, Tawfik Okasha. The members of the Egyptian Parliament responded to this gesture by ordering MP Tawfik Okasha silenced and voting to expel him from Parliament.
However, during a speech at the Massachusetts State House, Ambassador Koren suggested that the attitude of the Egyptian public had greatly improved over the last forty years. In an interview following the event, hosted by the group Israel Campus Roundtable, Ambassador Koren explained the changing situation and the reasons behind it.
Tom Olohan: Mr. Ambassador, I’m aware that you have had great success, that Israel has had great success, in improving government to government relations with Egypt, especially under President Sisi. However, it also seems that there continues to be a great deal of anti-Israel sentiment among the Egyptian people, and for that matter, throughout most of the Arab world, even if the relationship between governments is fairly good, as it is between Jordan and Israel, or Egypt and Israel. You mentioned that Egypt has made some positive changes such as beginning to teach about the Camp David Accords in their schools.
Yet a great deal of the Egyptian people, and the parts of the government that represent them, not including President Sisi, seem to still be very hostile towards Israel. Before I met you today, I heard of an incident that occurred when a member of the Egyptian legislature invited you to dinner and was punished for it. He was censured by his fellow legislators, shouted down when he tried to speak, and expelled from the legislature. Does this incident demonstrate the hostility that most Egyptians still feel towards Israel? If so, what can be done to improve the people to people relationship between Israel and Egypt to better resemble the solid government to government relationship which exists today?
Ambassador Haim Koren: Regarding that member of parliament, I said that he had a very colorful personality and he also owned a TV station. On any issue, he spoke out, spoke his mind. Many times, he would speak out against any line of anybody, not necessarily just the president or the government. People disagreed with him or were even hostile to him among the journalists, among the politicians. They found an opportunity maybe to use the meeting with me and to settle some kind of a personal, I don’t know, personal grievance that they had. It was largely political opportunism. I wouldn’t learn from that about bilateral relations between Egypt and Israel. I’m simply saying that it is a matter of patience and time. Remember what happened to Egypt after the Camp David Accords when President Sadat signed them he was assassinated in 1981 by the Muslim Brotherhood. Mubarak, his successor, was afraid to go on in that line to preserve kind of a, I would say, survival line for him. This is why he didn’t allow better relations, he didn’t change the educational system, he enabled journalists to attack Israel, even letting them do this sometimes in anti-Semitic ways, not always but sometimes, in order to survive in power, because it’s a rule in Egypt is that once the public is not happy with the ruler it’s better to take the heat outside and what more natural way to do it than this.
Tom Olohan: To direct the anger away from the palace gates so to speak.
Ambassador Haim Koren: Yes, his maneuvering relied on not explaining too much, not to ruin the peace process, because after America gave the umbrella to the peace process and America signed the Camp David Accords, Mubarak could not break it because then the annual foreign aid to Egypt would be cut, he understood that. But he didn’t do any much more than that in order to develop a relationship. When Sisi came to power, it was a different story. He understood the national security of Egypt differently and he went for a better relationship with us for the interests of Egypt. Now because of the behavior of the Muslim Brotherhood against the civilians of Egypt, many people in Egypt support Sisi because they think he is right. After the Muslim Brotherhood ruled a year in Egypt, people didn’t want to hear about them anymore. The change of the regime in Libya and what’s going on in Syria, Tunisia, Yemen and so on brought the understanding to the leaders of the region that in order to preserve their rule it is better to cooperate with other countries for two reasons. One, is preserving stability through a good economy and the other is preserving the security. Therefore, they decided to fight against terrorism the way they define it.
Tom Olohan: Which would include cooperating with Israel in Sinai against the terrorists, even if this was previously unthinkable.
Ambassador Haim Koren: Yes the important cooperation with Israel in Sinai, as well as cooperation with Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates. These Sunni Arab coalitions include us because there’s another big threat ahead which is Iran. Iran is an enemy of Saudi Arabia, an enemy of the Emirates, an enemy of Egypt, so for them, it was easy and comfortable that we will be vocal at the time before the agreement in actually representing them, because the Saudis when they spoke to the administration here were much harsher than us in their rejection of the deal.
Tom Olohan: You are referring to the Iran Deal?
Ambassador Haim Koren: Of the Iran Deal, so we have the common interests that overcomes the hostility from the past and might bring some welfare to the people too and that’s the difference from the ideological era of Abdel Nasser at the time, destroys Israel, destroy Israel. And maybe they can bring more benefit to their own people by cooperation. And that is a big deal, its brings us to be optimistic.
Tom Olohan: I see. There is a lot of hope there.
Ambassador Haim Koren: True
Tom Olohan: The education aspect you referred to in your speech should help this process.
Ambassador Haim Koren: Although It will take time.
Tom Olohan: Certainly
Ambassador Haim Koren: Its better that we won’t cheat ourselves that tomorrow, you know, a wolf will leave the land and no problem. It’s a matter of time and we are patient. We are patient. As I told you, I was a soldier in the ’73 war and I happened to become the ambassador to an Arab State. Do you know what it means to me personally? It means a great deal. In a very intimate way, to be in connection with Arab leaders, that’s something fantastic on a personal level.
Tom Olohan: I couldn’t imagine it if I had been in your situation. It seems, and I know that Israel is militarily powerful, but due to the size of the country and the many powerful nations on its borders, it seems that Israel is always in fear of a large surprise attack.
Ambassador Haim Koren: They do.
Tom Olohan: And Egypt is the largest power they face, so…
Ambassador Haim Koren: We always need to remember that we, from our point of view, that we prefer to put our resources on science, technology, education, rather than war, cause it’s a waste of energy and money, but on the other hand, if we, for a moment, will forget what might happen, just look, sixty kilometers from us is Damascus and we need to preserve our, our power, in order to enable us to be advanced in science, technology, education. That’s how the priorities, not the opposite. And once they will join us, at least in understanding that, that will mean a great deal. Then really, the Middle East can be much better, but that will take time.
Tom Olohan: Certainly, thank you taking the time to speak with me.