Malcolm Hoenlein is the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. He returned recently from the group’s 42nd annual Leadership Mission to Israel, which was attended by more than 100 leaders from the conference’s 53 member organizations. Before the group landed in Israel, some of them visited Turkey and Egypt and met with the leadership of both countries.
Q.: Your meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is another signal of the warm relationship the Egyptian leadership has developed with Israeli leaders, one that is not shared by the Egyptian people. Were you aware of that?
A.: We are aware of the divide, which is not unique to Egypt. The same is true with Jordan — even Morocco — where you have large segments of the population expressing hostile views not to Jews but to reconciliation with Israel. … Anti-Israel sentiment in Jordan is also held by about 90 percent of the population, which tells us how much work has to be done. There is not going to be an instant change, but the change at the top helps set the tone for a change in society over time.
There are shifts taking place and there are opportunities. We met Egyptians in our hotel and people in the shuk in Turkey — where there has also been incitement against Israel — and everybody greeted us. They obviously knew we were Jewish and they could not have been friendlier. … Trade between Israel and Turkey has increased each year since tensions arose between the two countries in 2010. And the number of flights between Israel and Turkey on a daily basis is incredible.
We’re hearing that Israel and the Palestinians don’t have to sign a peace treaty to ease the hostility among the populace, but rather just begin talks.
Yes, but today they are no longer putting the onus on Israel alone. They are saying the Palestinians too are responsible, and many express great frustration … [believing that] the money given in aid goes to people’s pockets and not the Palestinian people. And they say that [Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas has not taken advantage of the opportunities he has had to make peace. At the same time, they believe that were Israel to make peace, it would remove an obstacle to the normalization of relations.
These countries look at Israel differently than they used to. They see it as a force against Iran and they do not think they can rely on the West. Many feel alienated by the withdrawal of the West [from the Mideast], and look to Israel as a source of stability in the region.
There are reports that Egypt has for the first time begun teaching school children about the Camp David Peace Accords signed 38 years ago between Israel and Egypt.
Removing the incitement [against Israel] in textbooks is something we called for a long time ago. Now, the books say the signing of the agreement ended the state of war between Israel and Egypt. It is an important development and it was reflected in Sisi’s public comments on television about looking at Israel anew — and making other positive comments. It will take a long time to root out generations of hatred that people have been indoctrinated with. And some of it still continues, not only from the Palestinians but also from some Egyptian media.
On the other hand, there are courageous people in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world who cooperate with Israel, and there are those in Saudi Arabia who have written articles about it. … Egypt is working to close Hamas tunnels – they have closed 1,100 tunnels and they are very committed to it. Sisi told us that when [former Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat visited Israel [in 1977 to start the peace process], no one would have believed the level of cooperation taking place today between the two countries.
There are reports that Egypt would like to join the consortium Israel has formed with Greece and Cyprus. Is that true?
We raised it in our meeting with Sisi and he said, ‘I am a partner.’ … This is something we at the Presidents Conference have been working on for the last two years — a Mediterranean alliance involving Israel and countries in the area that have common interest in tourism, economics, trade and energy. The turmoil in the surrounding area brought this about. There are others like Italy, Malta and Morocco who will come in. This is something [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan is watching carefully, and it is encouraging him to look at Israel differently.
Such an alliance takes Israel out of the cauldron of the Middle East and into a calmer setting of the Mediterranean, where it can look to the West and have partners. One day, even Lebanon and Tunisia might come in. It has potential. We started promoting it five years ago and it has been developed intensively by Cyprus, Greece and Israel in the last two years because of the oil finds in the area. I would not have anticipated what the president of Cyprus showed me on his desk when I visited him [in January with a small group from the Presidents Conference] — a hotline telephone to Bibi [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu]. It was installed the day we got there. He said they talk regularly —once a week — and there is very close cooperation on a military and security level ….
Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan is said to desperately want to renew diplomatic relations with Israel but said Israel must do certain things first. Did that come up in your meeting?
He said there has been progress in the talks [with Israel]. After one hour and 20 minutes with him — and he had 19 members of his government there and only five or six for his meeting with [Vice President Joe] Biden — there were 35 in our delegation and he took a picture of the meeting and sent it out [to the media].
Sisi after our meeting invited us to an adjacent room for a group picture that they also sent out. It’s on his Facebook page — and the Moslem Brotherhood attacked him over it. In the past, such meetings were confidential.
The six-member Gulf Cooperation Council has just designated Hezbollah a terrorist organization. The action came one day after Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah complained that Saudi Arabia was fomenting instability to weaken Hezbollah. The action heightens the conflict between the Sunni Muslims of Saudi Arabia and Iran’s Shiite supporters of Hezbollah.
It indicates recognition of the reality of what Hezbollah represents. The Saudis have also cut off their funding of the Lebanese army, believing that the Lebanese government betrayed them. The Saudis felt the money they were giving Lebanon is fungible and was being used to support Hezbollah.