Al-Ahram Weekly Online
4 -10 April 2002
Issue No.580
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Pondering the next step

Warning, in the strongest terms, against Sharon's "insane" offensive against the Palestinian leadership and people, Cairo is keeping other options open. Soha Abdelaty reports

Ahmed Maher
A brutal Israeli invasion of Palestinian self-rule areas; an all out attack on the Palestinian Authority's infrastructure and security forces; a humiliating and potentially murderous confinement of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, all with the tacit approval of Washington. Egyptian foreign policy was confronted by these potentially catastrophic developments, while at home, public opinion was up in arms, with tens of thousands going out in angry demonstrations throughout the country, demanding that the Israeli ambassador be expelled from the country.

While studying various options, the government's initial response has been to focus on intensive behind-the-scenes diplomacy, while issuing strongly worded warnings of the grave repercussions of the Israeli aggression.

"The Arab Republic of Egypt calls on Israel to halt its hostilities immediately, and warns Israel that this new and repeated invasion of the Palestinian territories will have serious ramifications and will push matters into an endless cycle of violence," read a presidential statement released Friday evening.

"This will harm the interests of the countries and people of the region -- at the forefront of which is Israel -- and will lead to grave consequences," it added.

Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher characterised Israeli actions as "insane" and said they could not possibly be backed by "rationality or clear thinking."

Egypt and Jordan are the only two countries in the region which have signed peace agreements with Israel, and the only two countries that have diplomatic relations with the country. In November 2000, President Hosni Mubarak recalled Egypt's ambassador to Israel in support of the then-nascent Palestinian Intifada. Jordan also withheld the dispatch of a newly appointed ambassador to Israel when the Intifada broke out 18 months ago.

Since then, Egypt and Jordan have sustained considerable pressure from other Arab countries, as well as from internal public opinion, to sever relations altogether. The Cairo government's immediate reaction, however, has not been to pursue such a measure.

Egyptian officials insist that "these relations between Egypt and Israel are one of the channels that we work through to deal with the Palestinian issues and to serve the cause of the Arab nation" -- in the words of Ahmed Maher on 29 March.

Maher summoned the Israeli Ambassador to Cairo, Gideon Ben Ami, and asked him to deliver Cairo's warnings and its rejection of the Israeli administration's justifications to his government.

"We are conducting calls and exerting efforts and we will see what fruits these efforts will bear," Maher said.

Nevertheless, Israel seemed more insistent than ever on purusing its destructive policy, despite calls from around the world warning it to stop. When asked earlier this week about Cairo's strategy in dealing with Sharon, Maher refused to divulge, on the record, all the options that the government is considering.

"I will not talk about choices. But [the Israelis] know that when we say that we place the responsibility on them, we mean what we say," he said on Monday.

"We will announce the steps when we are ready to take them, and when we deem it useful," Maher added.

Maher tried to reassure reporters, however, that the government feels and shares the public's anger. "The Egyptian people are angry, we too are angry," he said on Saturday. "We have to resolve these matters with anger mixed with rationality," he added.

Short of severing all ties, Egypt's diplomatic options range from labelling the Israeli ambassador to Cairo as a persona non-grata and asking him to leave the country, shutting down the embassy in Cairo, or closing down Egypt's embassy in Tel Aviv. None of these measures would abrogate the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.

In the meantime, Egyptian officials also intend to pursue other paths. Egypt intends to continue urging US and European leaders to force Sharon to implement UN Security Council resolution 1402, which was passed on Saturday.

Resolution 1402 dictated that Israel withdraw from all Palestinian lands, including Ramallah. Although Cairo did not feel that the resolution was sufficient in resolving the issue, it chose to back its implementation. "I personally wish that it were a stronger resolution. But what is important in the meantime is that it includes the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Palestinian lands," Maher said on Saturday.

"Israel is not above the law and it is not above Security Council resolutions. It is up to the countries [of the world], if they care about peace, security and stability, to force Israel to implement it," Maher added the next day.

Washington, at least, is not responding. The US administration did not condemn Israel's actions and instead said that they understood these actions were in "self- defence" and called upon Arafat to quell terrorism.

Maher refused to comment on the American position, limiting his statements on the issue to "we have a resolution from the Security Council, and America voted in favour of it. It stipulates Israeli withdrawal." Maher also told reporters on Sunday that "the United States completely realises that what Israel is doing will backfire against Israel, the Palestinians, the peoples of the region and against American interests."

On another front, Egypt is also in close communication with other Arab countries as they try to come up with a unified position and plan of action. Ideas that have been floated include holding an emergency Arab summit, an Arab foreign ministers meeting or a meeting of the follow-up committee created by the Arab summit, which finished its meetings last week in Beirut.

What is certain is that Egypt did not think it necessary to hold another summit. Maher said that Cairo would not object to the holding of a meeting for Arab foreign ministers, but added: "there are contacts on various levels between Arab countries. It does not require a summit."

Egypt has also ruled out any withdrawal of the Arab initiative for peace endorsed by last week's Arab summit. The initiative calls for complete Israeli withdrawal from lands occupied in 1967 in return for normal relations between Arab countries and Israel. Maher told Al-Ahram Weekly on Friday that, "the Arab initiative is a decision by the summit. It stands, and it will continue to stand, until the day that another summit decides that this initiative has not been a success."

"We still think that with the support of the whole world, this initiative will be effective and Israel will be forced to rescind the illegal invasion of the territories of Palestine," he added.

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