In a sign that the post-Yasir Arafat era is presenting new opportunities throughout the Middle East, the cold peace that has existed between Israel and Egypt for the last 25 years may be starting to thaw both diplomatically and economically.
Israeli and Egyptian leaders used the occasion of a visit by Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit to Jerusalem Wednesday to speak about promoting relations between the two countries, according to Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom.
The meeting came the same day that the Israeli government of Ariel Sharon was plunged into a crisis as the prime minister prepared to present his $60 billion budget to a Knesset in which he lacked the necessary votes for approval.
At a news conference, with Gheit at his side, Shalom pointed out that peace between Israel and Egypt has been the foundation for regional stability since the two countries signed a peace treaty in 1979.
“Both countries have much to gain” from improved ties, Shalom said. He added that he looked forward to “closer and more productive ties in the weeks and months ahead.” And Shalom said he wanted to “ensure that our relations grow to the benefit of both our countries and the region as a whole.”
In a statement, Sharon told Gheit that he hoped to “strengthen ties between the two countries.”
And Shalom later told reporters that the activities of the Israeli-Egyptian Committee on Bilateral Cooperation have been renewed and that they are covering several subjects, including tourism between the two countries.
Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said that in recent months “there has been a change in what we are hearing from the Egyptians. There is a real effort by [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak to say, ‘Let’s stop the cold war.’”
Steinberg also suggested that there would soon be economic ties between the two countries.
At the press conference with Shalom and Gheit, the two men discussed the role Egypt would play in helping the Palestinians adjust once Israel withdraws its residents and troops from the Gaza Strip, which is scheduled to take place next year.
Although the deal has not been finalized, Egypt was said to be prepared to send a reported 750 armed troops to its border with the Gaza Strip in an effort to maintain security and thwart weapons smuggling into Gaza. Presently, only policemen guard the area. And Egypt has reportedly agreed to train Palestinian policemen in Gaza.
Sharon told a visiting delegation of American senators this week that he also wanted to have Egypt’s help in promoting security cooperation with the Palestinians.
Shalom and Gheit also discussed reported Syrian entreaties to resume negotiations with Israel over the future of the Golan Heights. But Israeli analysts said that was unlikely anytime soon because the Sharon government first wanted to pursue peace efforts with the Palestinians following the death Nov. 11 of Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat.
“Unfortunately the initiative of young Assad, even though it is honest, is coming at the most inappropriate time,” said Shlomo Gazit, former major general and a fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, referring to Syrian leader Bashar Assad. “If we were a normal country, a prime minister would say ‘I’ll open secret contacts with the Syria.’ But you can’t keep anything secret.”
“If the initiative had come before Sharon had come up with the disengagement, you could have asked the question about why the government isn’t responding. But since the government now has the obstacle of the disengagement, it’s obvious.”
Deputy Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told The Jewish Week on Tuesday that it is “too early to judge the Syrians’” seriousness about resuming talks. “He is talking but he is not stopping the operations of the terrorist organizations in Syria,” Olmert said of Assad.
Olmert said that before any talks can be held, Assad would have to also “move the violent terrorist organizations out of Damascus.”
“That is a precondition of Israel but also a precondition of America,” Olmert said before addressing a dinner of the American-Israel Friendship League.
Meanwhile, the almost certain defeat of the Israel budget in its first presentation this week was something Israeli analysts suggested Sharon actually wanted to see in order to convince his own Likud Party to allow him to form a unity government with the Labor Party.
“The prime minister is not interested in winning the vote at this stage,” said Eran Lerman, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Israel/Middle East office in Jerusalem.
He said Sharon believes a unity government with Labor is “vital” for him to pass both his budget and his Gaza disengagement plan next year.
Israeli strategic analyst Yossi Alpher pointed out that Sharon “has a majority in the Knesset for disengagement and a majority for the budget, but not the same majority. And what he is trying to do is to manipulate the two coalitions at the same time.”
For instance, the strongly secular Shinui Party favors disengagement but would oppose the budget because of Sharon’s offer of $68 million to the religious and educational institutions of United Torah Judaism in return for its five votes. The National Religious Party, although refusing to join the government because of its opposition to the Gaza plan, would vote for the budget in return for $30 million to its institutions.
Sharon threatened to fire any of his ministers who voted against the budget. If Shinui carried out its threat to vote against the budget and Sharon fired its ministers, it would leave his government with just 40 seats in the 120-member Knesset. That would then set the stage for Labor to join the government.
“But part of Labor’s price for joining is a radical change in the budget,” said Alpher, who is co-editor of the Palestinian-Israeli Web site bitterlemons.org,
Labor wants to see a greater allocation for social and welfare programs, especially in light of a recent report that found 1,427,000 people living below the poverty line in Israel last year — some 22.4 percent of the population.
Lerman said he believes Shinui is willing to leave the government because its platform is based on opposition to political coercion by the religious parties. And Sharon would be buying the votes of both the NRP and the UTJ.
He said the Shinui Party leader, Tommy Lapid, “is committed to walk because he shares the assumption that elections are not far off — in mid 2005, if not earlier.”
Sharon has been heading a minority government since June when the NRP withdrew from the government in opposition to the disengagement plan, which calls for the withdrawal of all 8,000 Israeli settlers in the Gaza Strip and another 600 from four northern West Bank settlements. Forming a unity government with the main opposition party, Labor, would once again give Sharon more than the 61 votes he needs for a majority in the Knesset. But defections from hard-line Likud members opposed to sitting in a government with Labor, and Labor Party members opposed to joining Sharon’s government, could scuttle that effort.
“That case would almost inevitably lead to early elections,” said Alpher.
Sharon has said he is ready to seek re-election, but he would prefer to put off early elections until the end of next year so they do not delay the Gaza disengagement plan, which is slated to begin in May.
“I have said elections at this time are a great danger, economically as well as politically,” Sharon said this week. “I would like to say that an additional option is to broaden the coalition, and I will make every effort to achieve this. If we are forced to run for election again, for the third time in three and a half years, then we will do so, despite the fact that it is completely unnecessary.”
Helping to increase the turmoil was former Ehud Barak, the former prime minister, who jumped back into the political arena this week by grabbing away the microphone during a Labor Party central committee meeting Tuesday night. Barak is against a unity government; Shimon Peres, the current Labor Party leader, is in favor of it.
At the end of the night, the Labor Party agreed to postpone until Dec. 12 a secret vote on selecting a date for primary elections, a move seen as a defeat for Barak because it gives Peres time to work with Sharon in forming a unity government. Such a government would likely include Peres, Matan Vilnay, Ephraim Sneh and Amir Peretz, sidelining Barak.
Each of those men, with the exception of Peres, who is 80, would like to be the Labor Party’s next leader and candidate for prime minister, according to Steinberg, the Bar-Ilan University professor of political science.
“There are a lot of chiefs and no Indians,” he observed. “This plays to the advantage of Peres, who says we have to work with Sharon.”
Israel correspondent Joshua Mitnick contributed to this report.