Posted on April 02, 2001 in Washington Watch

Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak wades into troubled waters when he visits Washington this week. Escalating Middle East violence and the election of Ariel Sharon have emboldened this city’s pro-Israel hawks. They are moving on several fronts to create even more complications in the already strained U.S.-Arab relationship.

Egypt is the target of much of these efforts. Regarded as the United States’ key Arab ally, Israel’s hard-line sympathizers have long seen Egypt as their greatest challenge. At last week’s AIPAC (the pro-Israel lobby) conference and at a recent press conference sponsored by a prominent American Jewish organization and featuring several leading members of Congress, a number of direct challenges were hurled at the Arab world’s most populous state.

Egypt was accused of:

  • Inciting Arafat to reject peace with Israel and to take the path of violent confrontation;

  • Failing to act to stop the violence once it started;

  • Spreading anti-Semitism in the Egyptian press; and

  • Violating their treaty with Israel by withdrawing their ambassador from the Jewish State.

As a result of those allegations, several members of Congress have announced that they are prepared to oppose Egypt’s request that the United States transfer some of its economic assistance to Egypt’s military program. These members of Congress have even indicated that they will call for reducing Egypt’s military assistance.

Egypt should not be thought of as without its defenders both in Congress and in the Administration. But even with support, the country will have a political battle to fight during the next few months. And the Bush Administration’s support will not come without a price.

The Administration has made no secret of its desire to see greater Arab support for its, as yet unannounced, “new” Iraq policy. It is puzzling to some Middle East analysts that the Administration wants to rebuild its Arab coalition to contain Iraq, while the U.S. steadfastly insists on a “hands off” policy with regard to the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Such a situation creates real discomfort for the United States’ Arab allies who want to continue to strengthen their bilateral relationships with the United States but are unwilling to do so at the expense of their own national interests.

To add further pressure on the Egyptian Head of State, President Bush last week made clear his intention to press President Mubarak to “convince Mr. Arafat to speak out against the violence in a language that the Palestinians can understand.” There should be no doubt that these words from President Bush will only embolden Members of Congress to push even more vigorously on President Mubarak.

In an effort to defuse some of this tension and to provide the Egyptian President with an opportunity to reassert Egypt’s historic role, a group of prominent Arab American and American Jewish leaders have come together to host Mubarak at a Wednesday luncheon in Washington. The event has been billed as “In Pursuit of Peace…a Welcome to President Hosni Mubarak.” But given the strains that exist, even this effort has become a focal point of controversy.

The group of 44 mainstream leaders from both communities announced their luncheon in order to provide President Mubarak with the opportunity to present his “thoughts on the future of peace in the Middle East.” It was to be a rather benign affair, a positive signal of cooperation between both communities even during these difficult days. But the reaction from some Jewish leaders bordered on the hysterical.

Malcolm Hoenlein, Executive Vice President of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations said, “This is not the time to hold a luncheon in honor of President Mubarak. Given the fact that he’s withdrawn his ambassador from Israel, and is continuing hostile and anti-Semitic rhetoric in the Egyptian media, any session that is not used to convey the seriousness of the moment and Egypt’s actions is counterproductive.”

He was joined by Abraham Foxman who noted, “This invitation says it’s to honor him and listen to his speech. Let him do that in Cairo. I don’t think we want that here in America.”

It is important to note, that in the face of such pressure many of the prominent American Jewish hosts of the event remain committed to their participation.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, one of the event’s hosts, President of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (The United States’ largest Jewish denomination) stated, “Mr. Mubarak is the head of the largest, most important and most powerful Arab state-which happens to maintain diplomatic relations with Israel. He is clearly a key to moving forward on the political front. Given that, for American Jewish leaders not to listen to what he has to say strikes me as somewhat absurd.”

It is important to note that, for very different reasons, some of the Arab American hosts are under pressure as well. While there is no hesitation to honor the Egyptian President and to support Egypt’s role in the Middle East, some members of the community are not pleased with any combined Arab American-American Jewish effort at this time.

In the face of all this, it is impressive that the event continues to have the strong support of its hosts and organizers, who continue to recognize Egypt’s role, the need for dialogue and the importance of seeking a peaceful resolution to this terrifying conflict.

On a bit of a sour note, I might close by noting that despite the fact that the waters in Washington are troubled because of the current situation, they did not have to be this troubled if some actions had been taken sooner, before President Mubarak’s visit.

The biggest problem faced by Arabs today is their failure to take seriously the need to do political work in the United States. Today’s anti-Egyptian campaign is not new. It goes back many years and has only been intensified in recent months. But in all this time there has been no sustained response to it.

Since the current intifada began, Israel has had its emissaries criss-crossing the United States to make their case against the Palestinians. They have not made do with private meetings in Washington. They have addressed public policy forums and editorial boards in U.S. cities large and small. And they have taken the time to regularly brief their supporters.

When Ariel Sharon was elected, Israel immediately sent high-level emissaries to the United States not only to meet with the new U.S. Administration, but to speak at public forums across the United States to help shape the public discourse with their view of the current conflict.

They knew there was a void in the U.S. debate-and they acted to fill it with their ideas. During all this time no Arab state did anything comparable. There were private meetings in Washington-but no public efforts to mold ideas and influence the public discourse.

The basic law of politics is when any one side fights, they win. It should not have fallen on President Mubrak to come to Washington and be forced to face some hostile members of Congress and a public debate molded by only one side. His visit should have been preceded, like Sharon’s, with visits by Egypt’s emissaries who could have taken on the challenge of responding to the attacks on Egypt and provided some challenges of their own.

Because this did not happen, the Egyptian President will be forced to spend some of his time responding to critics and that will surely distract from his positive message. He will, no doubt, do well. Despite the attacks on Egypt, the country and its President remain quite popular in U.S. public opinion. Egypt’s enemies have not succeeded in erasing that support-but they have made a dent in Washington and among some policy makers.

President Mubarak can answer these critics. But Egypt can play a more powerful role in the United States. To do that, however, Egypt must develop a proactive public stance and not allow its enemies to take the offensive against it.

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