Press in Egypt chills ties to Israel

Anti-Jewish tenor increases, 20 years after the two countries madepeace

If Egyptian newspapers were your only source of news, you might believe that Egypt was still at war with Israel, instead of marking 20 years of peace.

Ask anyone here about that "cold peace" today, and often this is the most charitable answer: "It's better than war."

Why haven't two decades changed perceptions between these former Mideast enemies? The list of reasons is long, but an important one to many is the Egyptian media and their long-standing daily flow of anti-Israel stories.

They accuse Israel of everything from bringing to Egypt hormone-laced gum and even blood tainted with the AIDS virus, to being behind the 1997 Luxor massacre in which Islamic militants killed 58 tourists.

Newspaper cartoons often portray Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Jews as Nazis, and Israelis as racists or as trying to leverage the history of the Holocaust into sympathy for Israel.

But many Egyptians counter that Israeli actions make political attack easy, and extraordinary charges believable. Often cited are the continued occupation of Arab territory; what they see as regular Israel-on-Arab violence; and the Jewish state's spindly commitment to peace efforts under Mr. Netanyahu.

"Our mission was to teach that Israel would change as the Arabs would change, but Israel didn't change," says Tahsin Bashir, a former government spokesman for both Presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat - the latter made peace with Israel in 1979.

"Today Israel is still an occupying country," Mr. Bashir says. "There is peace with Egypt while Israel is beating and killing the Palestinians, so Egyptians feel ashamed and indignant. These [media] attacks are only a way to vent their anger."

American officials keep a close eye on the media temperature in Egypt. In fact, US Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer - a career diplomat and an Orthodox Jew - has been the target of several negative reports, including one last March that described him as "a Jewish rabbi disguised in diplomat's clothing."

The US annually gives massive military and economic aid to both countries as part of their reward for making peace at Camp David. Egypt receives some $2.1 billion each year, while Israel gets $3 billion.

But Israeli diplomats say anti-Israel fervor in the Egyptian press is "getting worse," and daily they count 30 items in official newspapers. Egypt has a history of religious tolerance, but many here equate Judaism with Zionism.

"By inciting hatred of Israel and writing anti-Semitic articles every day, they keep the walls of division between Egyptians and Israelis," says Zvi Mazel, Israel's ambassador in Cairo. "They say that we always attack, that we always control, and that the other side is always innocent and beautiful."

Business contacts between Israelis and Egyptians are almost nonexistent - a fraction of the number shared by Israelis and Jordanians since their 1994 peace deal, for example - and the 300,000 Israeli tourists who visit Egypt each year rarely venture from the remote east coast of the Sinai Peninsula.

"The press creates an atmosphere that prevents us all from working in this direction," Mr. Mazel says. "We are part of the culture of this region, but they write that they still want us out. The average Israeli asks: If this is the peace with Egypt after 20 years, what can we expect from the Palestinians?"

But the root of the problem may not be as deep as many Israelis think, says Bashir, the former government spokesman. During the Crusades, Jews sided with the Muslim warrior Saladin when he retook Jerusalem from Christians, and Saladin "reopened the synagogues," Bashir says. Serious clashes between Arabs and Jews didn't begin until earlier this century with Zionism and the creation of Israel in 1948, he adds.

The only break given to Israel in the Egyptian press during two decades of peace lasted for six weeks, and was so significant that Mazel - who was a counselor at the embassy here at the time - remembers the exact dates: April 24, 1982, when Israel withdrew from the last part of the Sinai, to June 5, 1982, when Israel invaded Lebanon.

Of the strident anti-Jewish tenor in many articles, "I find it extraordinary to find this in such a sophisticated society as Egypt," one Western diplomat says. "Is the press well educated in Egypt? No, it is not."

Part of the problem in Egypt stems from a deepening fundamentalism in the region, says Mohamed Sid-Ahmed, a political analyst with the semiofficial Al-Ahram newspaper in Cairo.

"It's true, unfortunately, that [criticism of Israel] is moving from nationalism to religion," he says. "Here it is an identity problem that comes from the bottom up."

"[Right-wing, Orthodox Jews] are taking over in Israel, though before it was always secular," Mr. Sid-Ahmed says. "They are changing as we are changing. We were more liberal and secular years ago, too."

In Egypt, Jews "were always accepted, but in a certain status," he adds. "Now it turns out to be a more formidable Jew [in Israel].... There is hate and frustration, but also awe.

"The problem is: How do we get out of that [hate and frustration by Egyptians]? You can't accept it, but you can't dismiss it. It's there, and we can't pretend that it will disappear in one day."

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