Former diplomat retains faith in peace accord with Israel

Thu, Dec 1, 2011, 00:00

KEEPING AN open mind and a wary eye on the Arab Spring is a good way to describe the attitude of most Israelis, according to Shalom Cohen.

The Jewish state’s former ambassador to Egypt arrived for a short visit to Dublin this week.

Born in Tunisia, he moved with his family to Israel at an early age but was proud to return to his native country as Israeli ambassador for four years in the late 1990s.

Cohen was Israel’s envoy in Cairo from 2005 to 2010. “It was not easy,” he recalls.

Holding such a highly-sensitive position, he had to cope with the ups and downs of his country’s relationship with the Arab world and the occasional outbursts of hostility among the media and public opinion towards Israel. However, he says successive Irish ambassadors in the Egyptian capital were helpful and obliging towards him.

His five years in that job left him with a close knowledge of Egyptian society and its workings.

Cohen welcomes the overthrow of authoritarian and dictatorial regimes and the advent of popular sovereignty in the form of democratic elections.

But he believes that democracy is not just about exercising your right to vote: it also involves having a good relationship with your neighbours and, in that regard, he has some concerns.

He is not all that worried about the mood in Egypt. From his long period of diplomatic service there, he believes the vast majority of Egyptians are keen to preserve the peace deal with Israel.

Signed formally in 1979, the Egypt-Israel pact brought an end to the constant and bloody conflict between the two countries and earned the Nobel Peace Prize for Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat and his Israeli counterpart Menachem Begin.

The electoral and constitutional process in Egypt has only begun and will take months to play out. Cohen acknowledges that the Muslim Brotherhood are likely to emerge as the largest party, but he argues that the governmental arrangements for the country will not be determined by parliamentary election results alone.

“Taking power is very much related to the game of forces between the army, the parties and the people,” he says.

He notes that Egypt is known as the mother of the Arab world “We are in the middle of events; it is hard to tell yet where exactly it is going.”

He says the region is moving “from the Arab Spring to the ‘Islamic Blooming’ ” and the key question is whether this will be followed by a summer or winter in terms of politics and international relations.

Cohen recalls that the celebrated Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz – who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988 – used to say his fellow citizens were imbued with “a philosophy of peace”.

“In Israel we are very much hoping that this philosophy of peace will not be stopped,” he says.

A new dimension to the political process in the Arab world is the involvement of young people with a sophisticated grasp of new technology and social media.

“They know how to influence and have their impact,” he says. This youthful element may be a small minority but it is having an effect way beyond its numbers and is “probably more liberal, more open, more secular” than the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Arab world has entered a new era. “We all have to wish them the best for this big move from tyranny and authoritarian regimes to open, liberal democracy. But I must remind people at the same time that democracy is not only to vote, but to respect other values and to be open to other ideas, to accept your neighbours.”

The agreement between Egypt and Israel has brought a degree of stability to the region for the past 30 years and he believes most Egyptians still see it as a strategic necessity.

“I think that not only the army but the majority of Egyptians know and feel the importance of the peace with Israel,” he says. “It is something very positive for Egyptians, for Israel and for the Middle East and the rest of the world.”