Egypt's Presidential Front-Runner Takes a Hard Line on Israel

Article Summary
The cancellation of the gas agreement between Israel and Egypt is a sign of things to come if Amr Moussa becomes Egypt’s president, writes Sarah Leibovitz-Dar in a profile for the Israeli newspaper Maariv. She says many consider Moussa to be the leading contender for the post, and that his popularity is based on his hard-line attitude toward Israel.

Although Amr Moussa has not yet been elected president of Egypt, his anti-Israeli rhetoric has already assumed a large role in Egyptian politics. At the beginning of last week, Egypt’s provisional government announced that it was cancelling the gas agreement between Israel and Egypt. Thus one of the clauses in Moussa’s political platform was realized: a re-examination of the gas agreement between the two countries. Amr Moussa, who served as Egypt’s foreign minister and secretary general of the Arab League, is considered one of the leading contenders in the Egyptian presidential race. “If Moussa will be elected president, he is likely to operate against us in ways we have not yet seen,” warns Professor Yoram Meital from Ben Gurion University of the Negev. “As far as he is concerned, the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt is not holy and changes can be made to it — such as increasing the Egyptian military presence in Sinai. He is likely to heap scathing, relentless criticism on Israel with everything connected to the Palestinian issue, to downgrade the diplomatic relations between the two countries and transmit civil aid to Hamas in the Gaza Strip — things we have not seen in the past.”

Moussa, 76, has a long history of clashes with Israel. His relationship with Israel was so combative that David Levy nicknamed him the "Egyptian Rambo." It should be noted that Moussa never hid his hostility to Israel. He said that the officials of Israel’s foreign ministry "suffer from mental retardation" and that "only a madman or moron would believe in peace with Israel." He accused the State of Israel for terrorist attacks in which Israelis were killed, argued that it is impossible to believe Benjamin Netanyahu, sneered at Shimon Peres, and called to ostracize Ariel Sharon.

“Your intelligence is not very intelligent,” he told Israeli journalists at the Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos. Moussa even wondered out loud why Iran shouldn’t have an atom bomb. “Why should we stop them?” he asked a convention in London. In the wake of the Marmara flotilla events, Moussa said that Israel is the cause of the black hole in the region and announced that the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt that was signed in Camp David is no longer relevant in our time, after the changes underwent by Egypt.

Even those who tend to agree with Moussa that the steps toward a political solution include relinquishment of Jerusalem and return to the 1967 lines do not like his style. “He has a hard time with Israel,” says Yossi Beilin, who is well acquainted with Moussa. “Full normalization is hard for him to swallow. He is a bitter person, and part of his bitterness is directed toward Israel.” Professor Itamar Rabinowitz, who became acquainted with Moussa when he was Israel’s ambassador to the United States, adds that “he negotiated with us, but knew how to be very aggressive thus unpleasant.”

A history of confrontations

“Dialogue with Moussa was never easy,” remembers David Sultan, who had served as Israeli ambassador to Egypt. “He is blessed with verbal and cognitive dexterity; the answer is always on the tip of his tongue even before you finish asking the question. In his contacts with Israel, he was the one who often exacerbated the problems between the two countries. One of the American ambassadors to Egypt even suspected that Moussa did not want to promote relations with Israel.”

Israel’s previous ambassador to Egypt, professor Shimon Shamir, says that while Moussa “is a talented person and an excellent diplomat and statesman, he does not especially like Israel.” Zvi Mazel, who also served as ambassador to Egypt, adds that “his popularity stemmed from his hard-line position toward Israel. He was the one who, together with President Mubarak, decided that the peace with Israel would be a cold peace.”

In recent days, Moussa has been gaining strength in the polls that precede the election to be held at the end of May. Two weeks ago, Egypt’s High Election Commission struck down three front-runners: Omar Suleiman, the former Mubarak vice president and intelligence chief; Khairat el-Shater, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate and Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, the Salafist candidate. Out of the 13 remaining contenders for the presidency, Moussa is considered the front-runner.

Moussa’s popularity should not come as a surprise. In 2004 a petition circulating the Internet called for Moussa to run in the presidential elections. Tens of thousands signed the petition. “Two months after Mubarak was deposed, Moussa began to conduct his election campaign,” says Professor Meital. “He appeals to youths, liberals, the establishment, those who lack party affiliation, Islamists who do not support Islamic parties, to the large majority of society. His platform emphasizes the war on poverty, the abolishment of the internal security apparatus and the restoration of personal safety from violent crime. He focuses on internal issues. After he is elected, then he will raise foreign issues and the Palestinian problem will be at the top of the list.”

Moussa, a married father of two and attorney by profession, grew up in a wealthy family in Cairo. He is a secular Muslim, studied law in Cairo University and worked for a short time as an attorney. At the end of the 1950s Moussa joined the Egyptian Foreign Service and filled a long list of positions: he was director of the Department of International Organizations at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Egypt; Egypt’s ambassador to India; permanent representative of Egypt to the United Nations; and Egypt’s ambassador to the United Nations.

In 1991 Moussa was appointed foreign minister and avoided visiting Israel for a long time. When he did arrive for a short visit in August 1994, he refused to visit Yad Vashem with the argument that Israel was imposing an agenda on him that was not to his liking. “The visit was jammed pack,” was the excuse he gave in a journalistic interview to explain his refusal, three months after the diplomatic incident. “Suddenly they came and told me, you have to pay a visit to Yad Vashem. That’s the most important thing about your visit. That drove me crazy. Instead of two sides deciding on the details of the visit, you are trying to force me to do something. Don’t try to force anything on us. Instead, talk to us.” Moussa only agreed to visit Yad Vashem’s Children’s Memorial and not the entire site, and also refused to lay a wreath or wear a kipa (Jewish skullcap). “He was mainly worried about pictures taken of him with a kipa in Yad Vashem,” explains Beilin. “I would imagine that such a photograph would ruin his chances today of being elected president.”

Moussa’s visit to Israel in 1994 that began with a ceremonial disagreement, ended with a more fundamental disagreement. Throughout his tenure as foreign minister, Moussa demanded that Israel join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty while linking Israel and Iran in the nuclear issue: he asserted that if Israel has nuclear aspirations, there is no reason that Iran shouldn’t have such aspirations as well. “Peace cannot be achieved in the region without nuclear control,” he said in a press conference at the end of his short visit.

“He was an implacable enemy of Israel in all the committees that dealt with the nuclear issue,” recalls Zvi Mazel.

“A very bad wind blows from the Egyptian foreign ministry,” said Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 after another argument with Moussa on the nuclear issue.

“Moussa is anti-Israeli in numerous spheres, this is not the only one,” says Uzi Elam, who was director general of the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission. “In the field of nuclear energy, he was the mouthpiece of Egyptian policy. Presidents Mubarak and Sadat also demanded that the Middle East be demilitarized of nuclear weapons, though they were not as colorful as Moussa.”

In Nasser’s style

The "colorfulness" attributed by Elam to Moussa described a kind of diplomatic style that one would not expect of a foreign minister. A high-placed official in the foreign ministry remembers substantive and even polite talks with Moussa, but Moussa’s expressions towards high-level Israelis and the State of Israel continued to be harsh and vulgar. Moussa called Shimon Peres “a chatterbox” and Ariel Sharon “a red flag.” He said that he does not believe Israeli politicians and waged pitched battles against the Netanyahu government in its first term of office. “Netanyahu is destroying peace,” attacked Moussa in a 1996 interview. “It is impossible to believe Netanyahu, he tries to fool everyone, even Israeli public opinion,” he told the Israelis who came to visit Egypt in July 1997. He also attacked Ehud Barak in a similar fashion and said “Barak stuck a knife in the back of the peace process.”

As secretary general of the Arab League, Moussa attacked Sharon at every possible opportunity and said that with Sharon as prime minister, there would be no progress toward peace. In 2003 after terrorist attacks in Istanbul’s synagogues, Moussa said that ignoring Israel’s ‘constant aggression’ would lead to additional civilian victims and demanded of the Arabs that they not condemn attacks on Israeli civilians. “Israel will yet be beaten up by the Palestinians if they continue to occupy Arab territories,” he warned. Moussa expressed his support of the Intifada several times in the past and was partner to the Arab League call for severing ties with Israel until it would "stop its acts of aggression." In the Nobel Committee in Jordan in 2008, Moussa diverted the fire to Peres by claiming that Peres “only knows how to make eloquent speeches and Israel only spreads rumors about peace [without real intent].”

“Moussa is a complicated man, very shrewd, cynical,” says Yossi Beilin. “He has ideological motivation and deeply held viewpoints regarding the unity of the Arab world, a Nasser-ite worldview in essence. On the one hand, he is unyielding and bitter toward Israel and some of his popularity in Egypt stems from his disfavor of Israel; on the other hand, it is possible to talk to him and reach an understanding. He is very pragmatic, knows the world and is very familiar with America. If he will be president, he will succeed in bringing Egypt into the ‘club of all nations.’ He is familiar with the leaders of the world and they will breathe a sigh of relief if he will be elected president. If Moussa will be elected president he will maintain peace but not encourage cooperative ventures [with Israel] so long as there is no peace with the Palestinians. Israel does not anticipate special surprises or disappointments. We know him and know who he is.”

Beilin has known Moussa for 22 years. “A mutual friend introduced us when he was ambassador to the United Nations and I was deputy finance miniser. People said that he will go far, and shortly afterwards he became Foreign Minister. We continued to meet even when he was secretary general of the Arab League, but not in his office. He thought that it was inappropriate for a secretary general of the Arab League to meet with Israelis in the offices of the League in Cairo. He is not a warm person, does not create friendships, and he has a lot of criticism against Israel. On the other hand, he understands Egypt’s strategic advantages due to the peace treaty.”

“One of Egypt’s popular songs during the last few years has a line saying ‘I hate Israel and love Amr Moussa,’” says Professor Shamir. “This expresses his attitude toward Israel and the way that this attitude is viewed in Egypt. He is hostile to Israel, but understands Egyptian interests. He belongs to Mubarak’s generation who surrounded himself with pragmatic people who knew the ways of the world.”

“Moussa viewed Israel as a rival and not an enemy,” explains Professor Rabinowitz. “He was a difficult partner to the peace process. He wanted Israel to leave the peace process as a country standing on its feet, but not vie with Egypt for hegemony in the area. Moussa feared that the peace process would allow Israel to gain great influence. He feared that Israel was sacrificing territories but gaining hegemony in the region. And don’t forget his position on nuclear weapons. He is likely to support the Iranian position that opposes Israel nuclearization.”

“The second round of [runoff] elections will be especially difficult,” forecasts Professor Meital. “It is hard to imagine that Moussa will get more than half of all the votes in the first round, therefore he will rise to the second round in which he will face the entire united Islamist camp. If he will be president, his critical attitude toward Israel will become Egypt’s official position. The import of this is much more pressure on Israel — which could be critical in the event of another crisis between Israel and the Palestinians. He will treat Netanyahu as the Prime Minister of Israel but not as his friend. We should not expect warm relations between them.”

Found in: elections, israel, egypt

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