PM Erdogan at G20 meeting (AP)"They want to put in place controls to open the border to allow goods and people through, but in a way that does not undermine the Palestinian Authority, at the very least, and which preferably supports the Palestinian Authority."
Reflecting on recent trends in the Middle East, what do you see as the most important objectives for U.S. policy overall in the region? What are the issues and areas that require even more attention and focus than they are already receiving from the United States?
I think the promotion of peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians and between Israel and the larger Arab world is the number one policy goal we ought to be pursuing in the region, along with Iraq, of course. I would hope that the next administration would continue to take that on as a foreign policy priority. I think it is a difficult task, but very necessary. So much else is intertwined with it, in terms of our strategic interests in the region and in the world.
Does this come from your experience in Egypt?
Yes, it does, and in the larger region and beyond. I was a school teacher in Iran in the mid-seventies and later a Foreign Service Officer in Turkey and in the Arab world, dealing a lot with Iraq on and off. The Arab-Israeli peace process has clearly been an important strand in American foreign policy over all of those years, and it’s something we really need to bear down on.
How would you describe Egypt’s role in relation to the conflict and the contributions it has made?
Egypt’s big, historic, pivotal, vital contribution was in making peace with Israel at the time of Sadat, Carter and Begin. It was a pioneer. Egypt, then the leading Arab nationalist state which had led the Arab world into war with Israel many times, led the way to peace. It showed that it could be done. American diplomacy was vital in order to make it happen, and leaders of strength and vision were necessary on both sides, even though they had been bitter opponents. That was Egypt’s main contribution.
But its contribution did not end there. The promise of Egyptian-Israeli peace never really has played out to the satisfaction of either of those two sides, or ours. But if we read back into the original Camp David Accords, there was a strong component of broader Arab-Israeli peace and Palestinian-Israeli peace, not merely Egyptian-Israeli peace, at least in Sadat’s and Carter’s concept of what they had done there—and I have to believe, also in Begin’s. And Egypt has, just as much as Israel I believe, always wanted to complete not only their bilateral Egyptian-Israeli peace, but also the larger Palestine-Israel and Arab-Israel peace. The Egyptians have been as frustrated in their own way as the Israelis have been frustrated in theirs, at the “cold peace” between the Egyptians and the Israelis, or for that matter between the Israelis and the Jordanians, the only other Arab state that has made a peace with Israel. It is a fundamentally wrong perception to think that the Israelis wanted more, while the Egyptians only wanted what they wound up with, which is to say, a state of no war, of no mobilization of the armies on either side of the border, and relatively modest official, and highly constrained private, contacts. The Egyptians, I know, have wanted much more, just as the Israelis have wanted more.
What are the Egyptians contributing now specifically?
Egypt continues to stay engaged with the Israelis, the Palestinians (in all their factions, including those with whom neither Israel nor we will deal), the other Arab states and, of course, us. No one but Egypt—not even the United States, within our current policy and legal constraints—can serve as the communications conduit among these parties who are in various states of war. The Egyptians continue to urge and to sustain engagement not only between the two main parties to the conflict, but also by the other Arab states and the United States.
We take it as unremarkable, for example, that next week Egypt will host numerous Arab leaders and the Israeli and American leaders, albeit likely separately in this case, at the World Economic Forum at Sharm el-Sheikh. This past year, the Egyptians have very much supported not only Annapolis, but even before that, the revival of the 2002 Saudi initiative for Arab normalization with Israel within an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement on the basis of the 1967 borders. They’ve got quite an active and skillful diplomatic service, and they still have weight in the region and influence. They are listened to. The other Arabs care about the Egyptian viewpoint on things—both the popular Egyptian views and the official ones. So it is playing that facilitating role.
In the 1970s, Egypt had to lead the way, because it was the leading Arab state in war. Egypt was mobilized; its land was occupied by the Israelis. Now, if they are not in the ring, they certainly have the most important ringside seat. They play the role of a coach—as advisers to the Palestinians. They relentlessly counsel all the Palestinian factions to put aside violence and to come to terms with the existence of Israel and to move forward and make peace, and to recognize that compromises are both necessary and possible without betraying their cause. That matters. If the Egyptians were not playing that role, it would be immensely more difficult, even impossible, to achieve success.
Things seem to have become more urgent for the Egyptians with the Hamas takeover of Gaza…
The Egyptians see the continuation of the conflict as a threat to their national interest. It’s not only because of political or humanitarian sympathies with the Palestinian people, as their co-religionists or fellow Arabs. Those factors provide a powerful popular and emotional basis for their official position, but at the strategic level, the Government of Egypt sees the unresolved conflict as the primary destabilizing force in the region.
I disagree with those analysts who judge that all the Arab states have always used the Palestinian-Israeli conflict purely and cynically for their own internal purposes to distract their people. I am certain that there has been no small element of truth in that thesis in different countries and at different times, including Nasser’s Egypt. I’d be willing to credit that argument even today, for example, with the Government of Syria. But from every conversation I have had with every senior Egyptian official, from Mubarak on down, and with the punditocracy and even taxi drivers in my former capacity in Egypt in the 1980s, I judge that the enduring Egyptian consensus is that this is an unresolved issue that hurts Egypt.
Of course, in their analysis, they turn that thesis on its head, in a way that I think is equally unfair and ill-founded: Egyptian folklore is that the Israelis—and perhaps even the Americans!—want to keep this conflict unresolved, because it seems obvious to them that only the Israelis and somehow, they rationalize, the Americans, profit from this. In their logic, if the Americans really wanted this conflict resolved, if the Israelis really wanted it resolved, it would be resolved. This deduction is bizarre to Americans and Israelis, who look at this problem from a completely different angle. But, that is very much the point of view of the people there.
How do you see what the Egyptians are doing right now on Gaza—in terms of working with the different Palestinian factions and the truce they are working on?
Gaza’s a really tough nut for them, of greater urgency even for them than it is for anyone other than the Israelis. They share this problem with the Israelis. On the one hand, the Government of Egypt wants to maintain influence and communications with all the Palestinian factions, because in its view, that is the only way of having any hope of managing the very vexing Gaza problem: at the popular level, there’s huge sympathy with the suffering of the people in Gaza, and anger against the Israelis. The Egyptian Government is vulnerable to popular views that it is not doing all it could and should to alleviate that suffering–even that indeed the Government is in some way complicit with the Israeli “siege,” as they call it.
On the other hand, the Israelis, the Americans and, of course, the Palestinian Authority, are all demanding that that the Government of Egypt unilaterally impose complete control on what is, after all, a bilateral border between Egypt and a non-state and its extra-legal actors—not only Hamas, but also various symbiotic criminal clans. They are beyond any outside party’s ability to control, including Israel’s. After all, Hamas successfully tunneled into Israel in June 2006 and successfully attacked an IDF installation, taking Corporal Shalit hostage, as he remains to this day. They attacked across the border into Israel again last month. Hamas will continue to do everything it can to undermine border security controls whether imposed by Egypt or Israel.
It’s a matter of debate, as you know, as to whether Egypt is doing all it can or if it could or should do more. They say that they’re doing all they can. They were very upset about Hamas’ breach of the border in January. They want to put in place controls to open the border to allow goods and people through, but in a way that does not undermine the Palestinian Authority, at the very least, and which preferably supports the Palestinian Authority. They have asked for Israeli, American and other international assistance to accomplish this. I saw in a recent press clip in MEB that the Israelis have cancelled the planned visit of (Egyptian General Intelligence Service Chief) Omar Suleiman. Whatever the reason, it’s not a good sign that he hasn’t gone to Israel over the past several months, though he has received Israeli emissaries.
During your time in Egypt, Saudi Arabia took on a greater role in regional diplomacy, how was that perceived in Egypt?
The rising and more open Saudi engagement in regional issues, whether the Arab-Israeli conflict, or Iraq, or dealing with Iran, is quite noticeable, and historic and new. The Egyptians certainly see that. And they, both popularly and at a government level, approached it in two ways. For the most part, they saw it as positive. I would characterize Egyptian-Saudi relations as quite good, and perhaps better than ever. Officially and even at the popular level, lots of Saudis come to Egypt, lots of Egyptians work in Saudi Arabia. There is a classic Egyptian resentment of all the people of the Gulf for having so much money and what the Egyptians assert is “so little culture and education,” compared to what the Egyptians had with al Azhar and Cairo University and all the great writers and so forth. But that traditional Egyptian prejudice is wearing a little thin.
They’ve come to understand that with all the wealth, the people in the Gulf have used it well, and have opened up, and not only have they gained influence and assertiveness in strategic affairs, but also they are coming along in terms of their social development. Some of the Egyptian intellectuals resent that a bit, but they accept it as a reality. So overall, Egyptian-Saudi relations seem to be good and cooperative, they consult regularly and they are more or less on the same page with respect to regional issues. The Egyptians first made peace with Israel, but the Saudis in the past year or two have reiterated their 2002 initiative and have stated their willingness to normalize with Israel. So, growing Egyptian-Saudi cooperation is a good thing as far as the United States is concerned.
What did you find were the issues of concern both among the officials and other people that you had the opportunity to meet?
Since it is an old state that has been a regional leader, regional issues are of great concern: Beyond Arab-Israeli peace there is Sudan, both the north-south issues and Darfur, Iran, Iraq, of course. Then there’s Lebanon and Syria, Chad and other African issues besides Sudan. We continue to speak with Mubarak and his highest officials about all those issues. They’re very well-informed, and by-and-large, they see their interests as congruent with ours, if not quite identical. In the case of Iraq, for example, we both acknowledge that we differed over going into Iraq and the whole premise of the war. But now that we’re there, they do worry, at the official level, about us either declaring we’re going to stay forever, which makes them nervous, or declaring that we’re going to get out tomorrow.
Somewhere between “tomorrow” and “forever” is where they want us to be. In other words, create the conditions to enable us to depart as soon as possible, leaving behind an intact Iraq as peaceful and stable as it can be. That seems to me an intelligent position on their part, though it’s very broad, it doesn’t tell us how to get there, and we would like to see them take more active steps to normalize their own and broader relations with Baghdad. For example, we’d like Cairo and Baghdad to exchange ambassadors in each other’s capitals. They sent theirs to Baghdad and he was gunned down in the street within two weeks of arrival in 2005, so they’re not eager to send one back under current conditions. Lebanon is another issue on which our views are congruent. They want to see it stay whole and independent of Syria and not dominated by statelets within a state, or militias like Hezbollah.
At the popular level, ordinary Egyptians follow such foreign policy issues more closely than most Americans do.