Al-Ahram Weekly Online   28 May - 3 June 2009
Issue No. 949
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Parliamentary speaker says no

Fathi Sorour has refused a second invitation to visit Israel, reports Gamal Essam El-Din

Speaker of the People's Assembly Fathi Sorour announced on Monday that he would refrain from visiting Israel as long as it continues to occupy Arab land and denies Palestinians an independent state.

In response to a letter from Reuven Rivlin, speaker of the Israeli Knesset, inviting him to visit, Sorour said: "I told him I do not mind visiting Israel but only if Egypt and parliament approve of the trip."

"As you know, the Egyptian parliament is against normalising relations with Israel and always takes the initiative in condemning its crimes against the Palestinians," said Sorour. "In current circumstances it is inconceivable that parliament would give a green light for its speaker to visit Israel." He added that he was keen his response to the invitation took "a diplomatic and political" form.

Sorour recalled his surprise, a month ago, when he received a letter from Rivlin urging him to join forces with Israel and "other democratic nations" in isolating Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and condemning his anti-Israeli public speeches.

"The speaker of the Israeli Knesset also asked me to stand against those who deny the Holocaust in which six million Jews were killed," said Sorour. He explained that he had sent a response to Rivlin in which he denounced the Holocaust as a terrible crime. "But I also told him that we should condemn all forms of racial discrimination and crimes against humanity, including against the Palestinians."

In an interview with the Egyptian private satellite channel Al-Hayat Sorour said that after sending his response to Rivlin, he was surprised to receive a fax from "someone in the Israeli Knesset".

"The fax, which was unsigned, told me that I need to go back to university to receive some lessons in history," said Sorour, describing the content of the fax as "rude".

"I did not respond. Then I received a second letter from the speaker of the Israeli Knesset urging me to visit Israel."

Sorour said, "in his letter Rivlin said he was half satisfied and half dissatisfied with my response. He said he was satisfied with my regret about the Holocaust, but he was dissatisfied by my refusal to join Israel's campaign against the Iranian president."

"I told Rivlin I would not visit Israel until there is comprehensive peace in the region and Palestinians and Arab have recovered their occupied land."

MPs praised Sorour for rejecting the Israeli invitation. Saad El-Gammal, chairman of the assembly's Arab Affairs Committee, said Israel must withdraw from all Arab occupied land, demolish "the apartheid wall separating Israelis from the Palestinians", stop building settlements, and free 12,000 Palestinian prisoners, including MPs, before "the Egyptian parliament could even consider normalising relations".

Hussein Ibrahim, Muslim Brotherhood parliamentary spokesman, said he hoped "this move is followed by others, such as parliament approving his draft law that aims to bar Israeli officials from visiting Egypt."

"We do not want to go to Israel and we don't want such Zionists like Lieberman and Netanyahu coming to Egypt."

Nasserist MP Saad Abboud argued that the 1978 Camp David Treaty should not be an excuse for normalising relations with Israel. "This treaty does not include any articles stipulating that Israel take priority in buying Egyptian oil and gas," said Abboud.

On 18 May Rivlin told the online edition of the Israeli English daily Jerusalem Post that he is working intensively to bring about a visit by speaker of the People's Assembly to Israel.

"We do not need to dream about such a visit, but rather simply understand that it is dependent on the president of Egypt," Rivlin told the Post.

Rivlin asserted that in the coming few days he will meet with Egypt's ambassador to Israel, Mohamed Assem.

"The Knesset has warm relations -- even better than just formal -- with the Egyptian embassy in Israel," he said, adding that the embassy holds monthly meeting with MKs from a wide range of Knesset factions.

"We want this warm relationship to go beyond the Egyptian embassy and include the speaker and MPs of Egypt," Rivlin added, alleging that "there are common interests between Israel and Egypt, such as the common struggle against Muslim fundamentalism and state-sponsored terror groups."

Rivlin described Sorour's response to him as "a little bit ambivalent".

"On the one hand he condemned any Holocaust denial, but on the other hand he said that millions of Palestinians had been killed by hatred."

Unabashed, the Knesset speaker said he penned a new letter to Sorour, urging him to visit Israel and in which he also emphasised that "there was no similarity between the cases because in the case of the Palestinians we are in conflict with terror groups who are targetting civilians."

Rivlin considered his exchange of letters with Sorour as a positive sign. "Argument creates dialogue, and it means that you actually care about convincing the other side," said Rivlin.

Rivlin and Sorour initially met when Rivlin travelled to Cairo in 2005 to participate in the Euro- Mediterranean Parliamentary Assembly as part of the EU-sponsored Barcelona Process.

Mustafa El-Feki, chairman of the People's Assembly Foreign Relations Committee, told Al-Ahram Weekly that "I do not think that Sorour will approve visiting Israel anytime in the near future".

The Egyptian parliament is against consorting with Israel as long as it refuses to withdraw from occupied land. "Second," added El-Feki, "such a visit can never happen in a year in which Israel has committed war crimes against the people of Gaza." And third, "Rivlin should not think for a moment that President Hosni Mubarak will approve any pressure being placed on the speaker of the Egyptian parliament to visit Israel."

"The only contacts between Egypt and Israel remain on the intelligence and Foreign Ministry levels. They cannot extend to the non- diplomatic level."

El-Feki cites the recent verdict of the Administrative Justice Court stripping Egyptians married to Israeli women of their nationality "as an example of rejection of any forms of normalisation on a popular level".

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