Egypt's uneasy relationship with Netanyahu

Egypt’s leaders will have a heavy heart when they resume dealings with Benjamin Netanyahu, whose earlier spell as Israeli prime minister was the most frustrating since the two countries signed peace in 1979, analysts said.

Netanyahu was officially asked on Friday to form a new government at a time when the relationship has already been complicated by tough talks between Israel and Hamas on a Gaza truce, with Cairo as middleman.

“We can hope he has changed and that he will form a government of national unity,” said Mohammed Bassiouni, former ambassador to Israel and head of the Senate foreign relations committee.

Netanyahu’s initial term from 1996 to 1996 saw relations with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak deteriorate to the extent that Mubarak admitted the Israeli nationalist leader made him “very, very, very exasperated”.

Menachem Begin, founder of the Likud party that Netanyahu now heads, agreed peace with Anwar Sadat in 1979, committing Egypt to an uneasy but strategic relationship with Israel.

“Begin was a very determined man but the agreement reached with him was favourable and lasting,” according to Mubarak (80) who took charge when Sadat was assassinated in 1981, and has dealt with seven Israeli prime ministers.

However, Mubarak has been to Israel only once, in 1995, to pay respects to Yitzhak Rabin, also killed by a religious fanatic opposed to the Oslo agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

The following year, disappointed at the defeat of Labour’s Shimon Peres, the Egyptian leader adopted a cautious approach when peace deal opponent Netanyahu became Israel’s youngest prime minister.

“Perhaps his rhetoric was a bit exaggerated—he seemed more open than we thought,” said Ossama el-Baz, who was one of Mubarak’s closest advisers as the time.

However, the “benefit of the doubt” soon eroded in summits between Mubarak and Netanyahu and incomprehension gave way to exasperation.

“I cannot give him a chance indefinitely. I told him this and said it was important for Egypt and the Arab world [but] no progress was made,” Mubarak once said.

It was no surprise when Netanyahu allowed new settlements and froze the Oslo agreement, without formally ending it. Mubarak accused him of breaking his word and of doing everything he could to avoid doing anything.

The Cairo government gave a sigh of relief when Labour’s Ehud Barak won the 1999 election.
Mubarak spoke of “high hopes” of reviving the peace process.

The failure of the Camp David II talks in 2000, followed by the second intifada ruined the chances of settling the Palestinian question.

Hopes rose again with the election in Israel of Ariel Sharon, then head of Likud.

“I have said it and I’ll repeat it. He is capable of making peace. He has the power, the determination, the skill and the security-minded approach to reach peace,” Mubarak said, only to see Sharon fall into a
coma in 2006. - AFP

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