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Editorial: Undiplomatic relations 

 
 

Egypt and Jordan share the distinction of being the only Arab nations to have signed formal peace agreements with Israel, undertaking to conduct themselves as neighbors do elsewhere in the world.

However, Egypt's response to the terror onslaught upon Israel was to withdraw Ambassador Muhammad Bassiouni and not replace him, thereby effectively lowering the status of its diplomatic representation here. Jordan was due to replace its own ambassador, whose term had concluded. It never did. Again, diplomatic relations were thus effectively downgraded.

The fact that both states saw fit to keep their ambassadors away had no practical significance. In this hi-tech era, resident ambassadors aren't crucial. Yet the symbolic implication of their absence cannot be overstated. It casts a dark shadow on the value of Arab commitments to the normality of relations with Israel, as well as on the very readiness in the minds and hearts of former enemies to turn a new leaf, let old animosities wither, and nurture the tender sapling of harmonious coexistence.
Instead, however, both countries were seen as periodically uprooting that sapling at will, while holding out the promise that it would be revived when opportune.

Herein lies the real damage of what Egypt and Jordan do, showing again and again to their respective peoples that nothing is normal in their relations with Israel and that Israel somehow remains a pariah in the region, undeserving of legitimacy.

Contractual peace with Israel has exposed both Arab countries to scathing scorn from fellow Arabs, yet neither had done much to change perceptions or alter mind-sets. In fact, both seem to have gone out of their way to achieve the precise opposite and "cleanse" themselves of even the impression of congeniality between them and Israel.

Both regimes virtually tied their own hands by exuding support for the intifada, regardless of the fact that it directly followed then prime minister Ehud Barak's unprecedented and egregious territorial offers. There was unconcealed sympathy with suicide bombers in the state-controlled media of both countries and public opinion was manipulated via inflammatory coverage and the crudest hate propaganda against Israel since pre-peace days. Given the atmosphere created in both countries, it was hard to justify to an incited public a return of ambassadors to a thoroughly demonized Israel.

This can hardly be considered in keeping with either the letter or spirit of the peace agreements and the normality pledged therein. On Friday the Egyptian foreign minister told correspondents in Cairo that "only when Israel lives up to all its road map commitments, will we consider returning our ambassador to Tel Aviv."

Jordanian diplomatic sources echoed the sentiment, explaining that Jordan awaits "actual implementation" on the ground of the road map before reevaluating its stand.

This in effect means that there is no guarantee the only two Arab ambassadors to Israel will ever come back, as their return hinges basically on how the Arabs choose to interpret Israel's conduct and whether they consider it upright enough to be rewarded with full diplomatic relations.

Diplomatic relations traditionally have been most useful precisely in periods of disagreement, often even during armed conflict. However, Israel's neighbors view these relations as gratuitous and conditional gifts to Israel, for which Israel must make continuous sacrifices.

Full diplomatic relations are clearly stipulated in the carefully crafted agreements both sides signed. Both Arab countries exacted significant concessions from Israel in the case of Egypt major territorial ones in return for this semblance of normality. To now erase even the veneer of normality, and then demand further payment yet again for the very same promises, justifies Israeli skepticism about Arab sincerity when demanding tangible tributes for intangible guarantees.

There have been reports of American pressure upon both countries to reassure Israel that it can trust its Arab interlocutors. Following the 9/11 watershed, many in Washington have come around to the realization that Israel might not be the root cause of Middle East turmoil, as much as the malaise of undemocratic Arab societies with uneducated masses. The spectacle of lackadaisically reneging on promises is one aspect of such malaise in autocratic states. The US, fully cognizant of the weighty symbolic and psychological import of the violation of both peace agreements, failed, however, to win Egyptian and Jordanian cooperation.

For its part, Israel, though cheated out of a major symbolic component of its peace treaty with both neighbors, must play it cool and make no move that either can construe as caving in to pressure. Israel must stress that peace is its own reward and is no less vital for Jordanians and Egyptians than for Israelis. If Jordan and Egypt prefer to renounce their obligations, so be it for now. They can keep their ambassadors at home.
06/08/2003 

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