September 13th, 2011
05:45 PM ET

Repairing the Egypt-Israel breach

Editor's Note: The following interview is reprinted with permission of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Interview by Bernard GwertzmanCFR.org

Egyptian anger against Israel boiled over in a September 9 mob assault on the Israeli embassy in Cairo, forcing most Israeli diplomats to evacuate the country. The episode highlighted the "fragility in the Egyptian-Israeli relationship and how easily things can get off track," says Frank G. Wisner, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt. Wisner notes it's important for Israel to recognize "this is a psychological moment that is very tender" for Egypt and believes Israel should refrain from actions that could add to the tension. Wisner also points out that Egypt's military will seek to restore the Egypt-Israel peace and that Egypt has always sought stability. "Egypt will make her choices and will become stable again," he says.

The Egyptian military has announced steps to prevent a recurrence of the kind of violence seen at the Israeli embassy in Cairo. What do you make of all this?

These are emotional times, and it doesn't take much, given the history of the Israel-Arab dispute to stir up a crowd and get people to a fever pitch very quickly.

Do I see a fundamental change in Egypt's direction that could lead it into a renewed confrontation with Israel? I don't, but it takes very hard work on both sides to manage this relationship. It's going to be a delicate period in readjusting the relationship, because right now there is a very different political profile in Egypt. Lots of people have a voice, can be stirred quickly, and take positions that appear at first blush to be trouble.

On the negative side, it signals the huge fragility of the Egyptian-Israeli relationship and how easily things can get off track. One incident, the border attack, lets loose a chain of events in which street mobs are able to affect a hugely sensitive political outcome. At the same time, it should signal to Israel that the transitional government in Egypt is weak, and if the Egyptian military doesn't take direct action in a moment like this, nothing will happen.

The upside of the story is modest. The military is very miffed by this event. They see the effect on Egypt's international reputation and they see the importance of protecting the Egyptian-Israeli arrangement, particularly the security arrangement. They moved belatedly to deal with the crisis at the embassy, but they've also moved to warn the population: You won't be allowed to do this sort of thing again. The Egyptian military recognizes that peace with Israel is a strategic issue for Egypt and they will do their best to maintain it.

But this is a very uncertain time. You have a weak transitional government; and the police are by no means feeling empowered to take on mobs of crowds. It's not even clear whether the attack on the embassy might have been a bunch of "football fans."

That's what several of the press reports suggest.

Yes, I know. But the downside of that argument is well, if a bunch of crazy kids can do something like this, what is the structure of authority in Egypt? It is enormously important for Israelis to not draw the wrong lessons from this, and instead try to build on the positive. Build, maintain that relationship with the military, recognize that this is a psychological moment that is very tender, and manage the way through it carefully, without creating further reasons for people to get their tempers up.

You were probably the last American (NYT) to have met with Hosni Mubarak in February before he stepped down as Egypt's president. You were there on a special mission from President Obama. What can you tell us about that mission? What was Mubarak's mood like?

The demonstrations had broken out in Tahrir Square; there had been clashes with the police and loss of life. It was an ugly, intense situation. Military forces had been beefed up around the Cairo area. The situation was reaching a crisis point when we as a government - through Secretary of State Hillary Clinton - made it clear (Politico) on the Sunday of my departure from Cairo that the United States expected there to be a transition in Egypt on the road to democracy. At the time, Mubarak was firmly president, so as I took off for Cairo it was our hope that we would be able to add our voice to encourage Mubarak to move down the road toward a transition and do so peacefully. We wanted him to put in place the arrangements necessary for an orderly transition and indeed [to urge him] not to stand for reelection. That was the message in general terms, though of course the details of what I said to the Egyptian president, and what he said back to me, remain a privileged government communication.

Can you say something about how he looked? He's been on trial now lying on a bed in the courtroom so he's obviously not in great health.

President Mubarak is eight-six; he's had some severe health issues. But I had no doubt in the time that I was with him that he was articulate; he knew what I was saying. His answers were very crisp and clear.

He did announce after he met with you that he would not run for reelection. At that point there was an expectation in Tahrir Square that he would resign, but he did not do that for another week.

The people didn't believe the president, and they didn't trust him. And the tone that he adopted in his speech reinforced the crowd's skepticism that the president would vacate power and not stand for reelection. There was a clear mood on the street, "You've got to go now because we don't trust what you're telling us."

How many years have you known Mubarak?

I was ambassador from 1986-91, and I met frequently with the president. I believed that he was a strong and important friend of the United States; he saw the strategic significance of the Egyptian-American relationship and he swung fully behind the peace process. He was fully behind our effort to dislodge Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1991. He began to put Egypt on a path of economic modernization. He acted as the kind of friend the United States would want to have. We had our differences throughout, but when you look at the Middle East, this relationship with Egypt, together with the relationship with Israel and Saudi Arabia, have been key elements in the U.S. presence in the area.

After the trip, you spoke by television hookup (LAT) to the annual security conference in Munich.

The point I was trying to make in the Munich conference was that we really saw that Mubarak had a job to do to prepare a transition: preserving peace, bringing an end to his own incumbency, and setting the stage for a democratic succession.

It wasn't that you were saying he should stay in office

[That was the] furthest thing from my mind, and in fact, the facts on the ground would have hardly made that possible.

Are you concerned about Mubarak's trial or the growing anti-Israel sentiment in Egypt?

Now that his trial is underway, outside commentary would not be helpful, or wise, or appropriate. But having said that, the greater issue is where is Egypt headed? What you're looking at is a very rapidly changing situation in which Egypt has moved beyond the euphoria that surrounded Mubarak's fall. Will it be democratic? Less democratic? Will it be tolerant? Less tolerant? Will it be economically liberal? Will it be more state-dominated?

These issues have to be defined, and it is much too early to say exactly how Egypt is going to come out. My own view of Egypt is that whatever the debate, whatever the electoral process, whatever the leadership in this period of transition over a reasonably short period of time - two to three years - Egypt will make her choices and will become stable again. What kind of stability remains to be decided, but Egypt is inherently a stable nation; that is its history over thousands of years.

The Egyptian military is charged with running the government right now, but it's under criticism from many protesters for not being sufficiently democratic. Do you think that's accurate?

The military has no desire to replicate the role it played in the early 1950s when it threw out King Farouk and you had, in effect, a military-dominated government. The military wants to get out of the firing line of Egyptian politics, turn the country over to an elected government based on a new parliament, and see a new constitution. I'm persuaded that the military does not seek to continue to have to make the executive decisions in the country. It will want to have its voice count importantly in major questions of national security.

The Egyptian military will attach great importance to retaining peace with Israel. The tone of that relationship however, has already changed. It's a lot tougher than it was in the Mubarak years. An overwhelming majority of Egyptians, while they wish to be clear that they don't sympathize with the way Israel has managed the issue of Palestine, would like peace to continue.

Post by:
Topics: Egypt • Israel

soundoff (48 Responses)
  1. Travis Earl

    Here is a great video summary of attack on the Israeli embassy in Cairo: http://srml.in/cXC6J/

    September 13, 2011 at 6:58 pm | Reply
    • Awabnavi

      Why don't you post links of videos of Israel's White Phosporous attacks on Palestinian civilians and the murder of its people?

      September 15, 2011 at 5:05 am | Reply
    • Robert

      awabnavi, why don't you post links to videos showing staged Palestinians' being "attacked" (search for pallywood) or better yet videos showing hamas firing rockets from civilian areas?

      September 15, 2011 at 9:58 am | Reply
    • LV

      Next time, Israel should keep the Sinai. There is oil there, and the ruins of the resorts they built, too.

      Nobody ever asks why Egypt closed their borders to the PA. Nobody ever reads history and examines facts in the ME, yet there are so many opinions about.

      September 15, 2011 at 12:05 pm | Reply
  2. lobo

    Cnn is a Jewish company that blocks all news that it believes is in any negative toward Isreal.No one should rely on CNN for real news of the Mid east

    September 13, 2011 at 9:33 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      NONSENSE!
      Facts that I've learned from the CNN are – 1) The relationship between Israel and Egypt will not be the same again. The guarantor for peace – Mubarak is gone. 2) The military in Egypt respects the Camp David peace deal but can't guarantee that the new government would carry on the Israel-friendly course. 3) Uncertainty hangs like a Damocles sword over Egypt. When will the elections take place? And who will win? 4) Israel is worried. It fell out with Turkey. Now it wants to forget the incident and reopens its embassy in Cario.

      September 14, 2011 at 6:01 am | Reply
      • mickey1313

        mobarik was only interested in peace because the US paied him billions per year to do it, but no more.

        September 14, 2011 at 8:14 pm |
    • mickey1313

      most westerners are blood oath tied to the state of zion. I personally hope that bouth peoples wipe eachother out, so I can go see the pyrimids in egypt. I will go as soon as the muslems are all gone.

      September 14, 2011 at 8:13 pm | Reply
    • VampireJack

      lobo
      "Cnn is a Jewish company that blocks all news that it believes is in any negative toward Isreal.No one should rely on CNN for real news of the Mid east"

      What utter nonsense.
      CNN is used mainly as a tool to further the cause of Islamic Expansion into the West, always portraying Muslims as being the victim. Whenever Israel ever has the audacity to defend it's borders against constant attackers, CNN are always first to show the Jooozzz as the bad guys, while propping up the Muslim Propaganda.
      It should be Caliphate Network News.

      September 15, 2011 at 4:51 am | Reply
      • Mike11

        "Israel audacity to defend its borders?" Are we going to say the same when Tejas is under Mexican control and defends its borders from whatever is left of the US? Israel was founded by illegal immigration from Europe.

        September 15, 2011 at 7:20 am |
    • Scott

      And here we see a direct link to fundamentalist thinking in the west and the middle east. So the media is protecting the liberals, and the media is protecting the Jews. Personally, I think it's that a mind cultivated through religion isn't capable of processing the modern world.

      September 15, 2011 at 8:03 am | Reply
    • AMAU

      IT IS JUST THE OPPOSITE. CNN is so pro-arabs and anti Israel that every Jew slaps a bumper sticker on their car that reads "CNN LIES".

      September 15, 2011 at 9:55 am | Reply
  3. wavettore

    Since 9/11 it's the War on Terror.

    One "false flag" attack so called by error.

    Blair, Bush, and Israel had a Pact in store.

    Their next surprise is knocking at your door.

    A hidden vile Idea from those who want "more"

    will use you and your Belief for the next World War

    When "chosen people" gain while Humankind loses

    Greed wins not by the swords but by the words of Moses

    ...................

    A new type of Revolution wins with the ultimate weapon

    Your Mind

    http://www.wavevolution.org

    September 14, 2011 at 12:25 am | Reply
    • Thinker23

      Racism is always ugly and disgusting.

      September 14, 2011 at 5:37 am | Reply
  4. oemcargps

    Thanks for taking the time to talk about this, I feel fervently about this and I take pleasure in learning about this topic.
    http://www.oemcargps.com

    September 14, 2011 at 4:19 am | Reply
  5. Abdul Ameer

    How is it possible to write an article about developments in Egypt without even mentioning Islam? Is Gwertzman really that hopelessly ignorant? Time after time, public opinion surveys as well as news events have shown that the Egyptian population is overwhelmingly in favor of sharia law and is overwhelmingly anti-Semitic. There is nothing new about this. What is new in Egypt now is that the Islamic fervor and anti-Semitism is no longer suppressed by the Egyptian government as it was, to a degree, under Mubarak. The military regime, like Mubarak for thirty years, receives a 2 Billion dollar bribe per year from America to maintain peace with Israel. The Moslem population, on the other hand, wants to abolish the peace treaty and make war on Israel. How long will the military junta be able to resist the desires of the Egyptian population?

    September 14, 2011 at 1:37 pm | Reply
    • mickey1313

      I want to see both sides burn

      September 14, 2011 at 8:17 pm | Reply
      • Thinker23

        Burn yourself and you'll have the idea how it looks like.

        September 15, 2011 at 5:49 am |
  6. Amit-Atlanta-USA

    Simply put, the Egyptian-Israeli relations may not only be irreparable, but it may actually get worse as recent events show.

    Here's a response I wrote on Turkey's Islamist PM Tayyip Erdogan's efforts to gang up the Arabs once again against Israel.

    Nothing surprising here when we remember that not long ago Mr. Erdogan said "The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers".

    Even CNN's own Mr. Fareed Zakaria, an outside advisor to President Obama on Muslim affairs has been suggesting to the Egyptians to throw out their peace treaty with Israel shamelessly saying that the treaty was between two regimes and NOT between their peoples. He and other Anti-Semites incl. Rashad Hussain (US ambassador to the OIC), radical cleric Imam Rauf (US goodwill Ambassador to the ME) have been quietly nudging the Obama administration into abandoning proven allies like Hosni Mubarak and now Gadhafi by embracing Islamists. These Obama advisors also have been instrumental in Egypt taking several other steps including bringing about Palestinian unification (terrorist Hamas & PLO), disrupting the gas pipeline into Israel from Tunisia, throwing open the Gaza check points to militants in violation of international treaties, drumming up support for terrorist Hezbollah & the Muslim Brotherhood amongst gullible Americans praising them as moderates, all with the ultimate aim of destroying the Jewish nation.

    September 14, 2011 at 1:44 pm | Reply
  7. CK

    I find it very strange that the interview did not touch on why the crowds were protesting in front of the Israeli embassy in the first place. These people were extremely angry because the Israeli forces "wrongfully" killed 9 Egyptian soldiers at the borders and refused to even apologize for it.

    September 14, 2011 at 1:46 pm | Reply
    • Paul

      Israel did apologize, so that is not correct – http://news.yahoo.com/israel-apologizes-egypt-killing-troops-153043425.html

      September 14, 2011 at 5:10 pm | Reply
    • Dirk

      After Israel apologized for killing the Egyptian soldiers Egypt wanted a further investigation into the shooting deaths to determine how and why Israel killed the soldiers by accident. Israel refused – Egypt got its mad out.

      September 15, 2011 at 3:37 am | Reply
  8. Amit-Atlanta-USA

    Israel foolishly traded the oil & gas rich Sinai peninsula with the hope of finding peace with Egypt. If Egypt were to go back on those committments Israel must take control of Sinai again (in the next war!) and the US must at least look the other way!

    September 14, 2011 at 3:08 pm | Reply
  9. Ruben - Dallas

    The Egyptian-Israeli relationship has been fragile from Day One: it was a governmental arrangement which was never broadened, at least on the Egyptian side, to include people. While droves of Israelis have visited Egypt and Israeli businessmen tried to do business in Egypt, Egyptians have been actively discouraged from visiting Israel or doing much business with the country. And the Egyptian government, while seeking the stability of peace, has actively undermined that peace through an educational system and media that teach/disseminate information that rejects the legitimacy of Israeli and that foster anti-Semitism (the 40+ part TV miniseries of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion being a heinous recent example). Given this backdrop, it's nearly miraculous that mob attacks against Israeli/Jewish targets have not been more prevalent in the past.

    Then, again, Israel was the catalyst for what happened in Cairo recently (CK, the interview does in fact touch on the incident). I don't know whether the loss of life or the failure to apologize or both were the tirgger, but I cannot understand why Israel cannot apologize for the collateral damage that occurred in responding to missile attacks. It's an example of the unfortunate arrogance of the current Israeli government (the face of that arrogance being Mr. Loyalty Oath himself, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman). The same applies to the increasing tensions with Turkey: how hard would it have been for the government to say that Israel will enforce the blockade against a Hamas government that has been internationally recognized as terrorist, that no similar incidents occurred with the other X dozen boats, that Israel is sorry that any blood was shed, but there would have been no loss of life if the Turkish boat has responded like the other boats - if there wasn't aggressive, life threatening actions to board the boat. Then, again, it wouldn't be Israel if there were a government that knew how to play the diplomatic and public relations game ... a new Abba Eban is needed!

    September 14, 2011 at 3:26 pm | Reply
    • Amit-Atlanta-USA

      Ruben: You overly simplify the actions of these Islamic zealots. Most Americans are convinced that it's all part of a grand centuries old plan to destroy the Jewish people.

      Check this out:
      Zuheir Mohsen- PLO Leader "The "Palestinian people" does not exist. The creation of a Palestinian state is only a means for continuing our struggle against the state of Israel for our Arab unity. In reality today there is no difference between Jordanians, Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese. Only for political and tactical reasons do we speak today about the existence of a "Palestinian people" “"For tactical reasons, Jordan, which is a sovereign state with defined borders, cannot raise claims to Haifa and Jaffa, while as a Palestinian, I can undoubtedly demand Haifa, Jaffa, Beer-Sheva and Jerusalem. However, the moment we reclaim our right to all of Palestine, we will not wait even a minute to unite Palestine and Jordan."

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zuheir_Mohsen

      September 14, 2011 at 3:43 pm | Reply
    • Laura

      The attack on Israel’ Embassy happened after one more Egyptian soldier died from the incident. Yes, Israel gave some sort of apology, but what I heard from Israelis news they still constantly saying their neighbors only understand force and they should not show any signs of weaknesses… Well, they like all people prefer equality and respectful treatments… Thanks God, Israel did not follow the advice of Lieberman to bomb Egypt (I read it in Europeans news). I visited Egypt, yes hate toward Israel is high, but in such important time it’s so important to do right things and repair the damage done over years not only in Egypt but in the ME altogether. But stubborn Israeli government doesn’t want change, doesn’t want resolve the bloody conflict with Palestine, and doesn’t want to allow Palestine to claim their state in not violent, legitimate way in UN. A Nataniyagu’ cabinet plays dangerous games which can cause a war again. Well, if Israel's goverment wants to go that way, do it yourself, if Israeli people let you, but don’t drag America down with you… We already lost 3000 in 9/11, plus 6000 best of the best in wars followed 9/11.

      September 15, 2011 at 10:39 am | Reply
  10. Israeli and Proud

    You all are clearly out of your minds, Do you not know that Israel is the only demorcracy in its area. Why do you care how other people live their lives. Palestiane was never an actual country look it up.. Israel was not taken away from the palestianes it was occupied territory, and that occupied territory was given to Jewish people by the United Nations. I dont care about and dont hate anyones religion or culture, why cant you just accept mine. We dont have to like eachother or trust eachother , but to respect eachother is important.. There are over 5 huge arab countries surronding israel , why dont they go there, theres plenty of room. Dont hate on Israel, the jewish people are very nice and respectable people, unless youve been there and you know what your talking about , stop lieing to yourself. Israel has been here for years, and were not going anywhere. PEACE ON EARTH !

    September 14, 2011 at 4:25 pm | Reply
    • mickey1313

      Why would anyone who is smart enough to know the differance between fantisy and reality believe in the magical mystical god. And why would anyone who is that smart trust believe or even listen to someone who is to stupid to realize that the books they fight over were writen buy rich powerful controling men, not god.

      September 14, 2011 at 8:23 pm | Reply
      • danf

        You may believe that you are just meat, but will you follow that logic to it's full conclusion. Ideas have consequences. At the most fundamental level we see the failure of meat based modes of thinking. Western secular societies are simply failing to reproduce. Failure at the most basic level.

        September 14, 2011 at 10:17 pm |
      • Thinker23

        Well, if you're THAT smart, Mickey, you will have no troubles to answer the following question: All scientists agree that the world we live in which is commonly referred as the Universe, had a beginning called the Big Bang. This means that either the Universe was CREATED by someone having the knowledge and technology to create Universes or, alternatively, the Universe came into existence all by itself FROM NOTHING. Which of these two possibilities you believe to be more plausible?

        September 15, 2011 at 6:07 am |
    • Scott

      @ Dan You're just wrong sport. Do you know how many populations overpopulation has destroyed? This is failure at the most basic level.

      September 15, 2011 at 7:34 am | Reply
  11. Paul

    I do not agree with the author's conclusions at all. Egypt is ripe for some serious revolution and chaos. The author neglects to mention that for 30 years Mubarak and his regime have constantly vilified Israel and Jews in general, blaming them for all of Egypt's problems, in order to distract the people from their own corruption and the endemic poverty. The result is the majority of Egyptians despise Israel with a pashion and want to renege on the Camp David Accords. The majority of Egyptians do not want peace with Israel, many actually think there is some vast conspiracy whereby Israel is the cause of all their problems. I'm not sure what Kool Aid the author has been drinking, but it must be some strong stuff. He seems to be unaware of the incredible rage and anger building up in Egypt at the moment.

    September 14, 2011 at 5:18 pm | Reply
    • Amit-Atlanta-USA

      Paul:

      While Mubarak may have played on Egyptian dislike of Israel just to make himself look good, what is an UNDENIABLE FACT is that Muslims the world over DESPISE Israel, and America. That includes American Muslims including so-called moderates like Fareed Zakaria (even as he pretends to be an American patriot!) and ofcourse radicals like Imam Rauf and others.

      Even in my & Mr. Zakaria's former homeland India, inspite of huge support to Israel from Hindu Indians, successive govts. treated the Jewish nation as a anathema while sucking up to the Palestinians only to placate unpatriotic, highly demanding Indian Muslim minority. And that is true with literally every other country with a sizable Muslim population, and all the more so with Europe, and increasingly with the US, through a systematic campaign as the aggrieved party by the Muslim community!

      September 14, 2011 at 5:59 pm | Reply
      • Dirk

        So you're saying everyone hates Israel. How original. Too bad Arabs suck at fighting or they might have won the 1948 and 67 wars they fought with Israel.

        September 15, 2011 at 3:48 am |
  12. safiya campbell

    I DONT GET WYH THEY HAD ONE MEAN PESIDENT BUT THEN HE IS PUTTING HIS SUN IN CHARG

    September 14, 2011 at 8:09 pm | Reply
  13. Rudy

    President Obama's speech in Egypt some two years ago, speaking of democracy may be one of the factors that has caused the uprise in the arab countries. We will regret that speech. Democracies are for countries having a big middle class, and have plenty of money to spend together with a good economy. Countries that are poor have no business in democracies because their problems are not freedoms but opportunity to make a living. Democracies offer less to these people now. We ilt a match and I am afraid that we will also get burned by the fire

    September 15, 2011 at 2:01 am | Reply
    • Scott

      Yes Obama ruined your happy little Arab family. Of course living in the stone age had nothing to do with it. It must be the vast emotional and intellectual maturity possessed by the culture that results in them always looking for someone to blame for their failure. Say what you want about Israel, and much will be true, but at least they understand the importance of strength and character. They are real men and women of the world.

      September 15, 2011 at 7:45 am | Reply
  14. don

    We are not the ones to broker a isreali/palistinian peace
    WE furnished the tanks and planes Isreal uses to subjugate the palistinians and turned a blink eye xriminal acts tha isreal has committed

    September 15, 2011 at 10:16 am | Reply

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