In this article we wish to present our perspective of an embryonic attempt to conduct a meaningful political dialogue between Egyptian and Israeli peace activists in 1997-1998. We aspire both to provide first-hand information on the development and outcome of the dialogue and to analyze our experience and focus upon its relevance to the wider intricacies and difficulties of the peace-building process in the Middle East. More specifically, we intend to point out some similarities and differences in the aspirations and attitudes of Israelis and Egyptians towards peace, and the different ways in which the two parties conceive peace activism at the present stage.

The Egyptian Reservations

This article is based on many conversations held with Egyptian colleagues who shared these observations with us. It has been 20 years since president Anwar Sadat came to the Israeli Knesset. As a result, war and bloodshed were stopped; however, the psychological barriers between the two peoples have not been removed.
Since the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, which isolated Egypt in the Arab world, the majority of Egyptian intellectuals have adopted a unanimous and relentless position against the bilateral peace and normalization with Israel. This trend intensified with the political events of the early 1980s: First, Israel did not fulfill and respect all the commitments it signed in the Camp David Accords concerning the Palestinian question. Furthermore, Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982 was followed in 1987-1991 by the hard-handed oppression of the Palestinian population during the Intifada years. These events made it very easy to present the Camp David Accords in Egyptian and Arab public opinion as a betrayal of the Arab cause and Arab solidarity. Hence, it became increasingly difficult to implement clauses in the peace treaty that were supposed to facilitate a gradual normalization between the two societies. These clauses addressed cultural exchange, joint youth and sports activities, joint research and academic cooperation between universities and research institutes, as well as large-scale joint economic ventures.
The leading factor behind the strong opposition to normalization was the Egyptian civil society at large, especially the various syndicates which issued a boycott on all normalization activities with Israel, including dialogue with progressive Israeli peace forces. Despite the enormous changes in world order and the progress towards peace in recent years, this boycott still remains.
Nonetheless, some signs of change started to occur after the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 and the accession to power of Netanyahu in 1996. The policy of the right-wing coalition in Israel then was perceived as a great threat to the revising of Egyptian policy over the last 20 years. Leading Egyptian intellectuals started to question the policy of disregarding the pluralistic nature of Israeli society and of eschewing dialogue with the progressive peace forces. Moreover, there were some second thoughts about the political wisdom of not actively reaching out to the Israeli peace forces at a time when they were under serious attack during the last period of the late Rabin's term of office.

The First Steps

In January 1997, President Hosni Mubarak granted a formal reception to an Israeli Peace Now delegation. The president made a point of stressing the importance of the Israeli peace movement as a major partner with a special responsibility and duty to facilitate and speed up the resolution of the conflict. Consequently, the Peace Now delegation met some independent intellectuals who to some extent were already engaged in informal relations with Israeli intellectuals. These people regarded the presidential reception and its extensive coverage in the media as signs encouraging them to go forward with their initiative. At more or less the same time, in early 1997, the International Alliance for Peace in the Middle East was established in Copenhagen, Denmark, with the participation of prominent Egyptian, Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli personalities - some of the latter from the center of the Israeli political map. The Egyptian press, mainly the opposition media, fiercely attacked the joint declaration that was published afterwards.
At this stage Lutfi Al-Khouly, head of the Egyptian Alliance, accepted an invitation by Amos Elon of the Copenhagen Alliance and Peace Now to participate in a Peace Now demonstration against Israeli construction plans at Har Homa/Jabal Abu-Ghneim. During the first meeting between the Egyptian activists and Israeli Peace Now activists, the two sides opened up the most controversial issues of the Arab-Israeli and Palestinian-Israeli conflicts. In the course of these discussions it became clear that the Egyptian delegation was unaware of Peace Now's political positions concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that:
* The Palestinians have the right to self-determination and to establishing their free state alongside Israel;
* The 1967 border should serve as the guideline for the future borders between the two states;
* The Jewish settlement activities constitute a major obstacle to peace and thus must be stopped;
* Jerusalem should remain united but be shared by the two peoples and serve as capital of the two states.
These positions were much closer to the Arab position than those of the Copenhagen Alliance, thus making Peace Now a more accepted partner for Egyptian public opinion. The two delegations decided to continue the bilateral dialogue. Two weeks later, Peace Now's policy position on final-status issues was published in a very prestigious political debate page in the Al-Ahram newspaper. The publication engendered an extensive public debate in the Egyptian press. Though the document was mostly criticized, it was actually the first time that an Israeli peace movement had any kind of serious, factual and objective exposure in the Egyptian media.

The Cairo Meeting 10.7.1998 - 14.7.1998

A short while later, the two parties, six members of each side (1), resumed their discussions in Cairo in a three-day seminar at the Afro-Asian Center for Intercultural Dialogue, headed by Mr. Al-Khouly.(2) The seminar aimed at clarifying the shared vision of peace, as well as to work out an acceptable joint platform and organizational framework for future cooperation. When the participants introduced themselves, it became evident that most of them came from a leftist political background. Most of the Egyptian counterparts had until then been opposed to the Camp David Accords and, therefore, had undergone a major political shift.
As for the Israeli group of veteran Peace Now activists, the meeting with the Egyptians was a long-awaited and natural development, since most of them had been engaged for almost three decades in persuading the Israeli public about the feasibility and necessity of a political compromise that can lead to peace with the Palestinians and the Arab world. After clarification, it was agreed that both sides regard the solution to the Palestinian problem as the key factor for achieving a just, lasting and comprehensive peace in the region. The parties agreed that the Middle East should become free of the threat of war and destruction and transformed into a haven of cultural, technological and economic development.
The Egyptian colleagues reiterated that peace and regional stability were a major Egyptian strategic interest, a key factor in ensuring and enhancing the future progress and development of the Egyptian economy, the civil society and the society at large. They regarded globalization and regional cooperation as a new stage in international and regional relations, both interdependent and enhancing the peace process at the same time. The Israelis stressed their vision and understanding of peace as being strongly related to the very existential needs of security and safety. They expressed their wish that after the final peace agreements are signed and implemented, Israel should be accepted and integrated into the region within recognized and legitimate borders.
In light of the broad agreements, the parties tried to discuss an accepted framework for mutual cooperation and peace activism. At this stage, the gap between the perspectives and expectations of both sides became evident: The Israelis were expecting to draw a plan for widening and deepening the dialogue between Peace Now members and the Egyptian members of the Alliance. The Egyptians insisted that peace activism should concentrate on the Israeli side, mobilizing Israeli public opinion and putting pressure on the Israeli government to comply with formerly signed agreements and to move forward with the peace process. The problematic question of "normalization" and the wider concepts regarding Israel's role and place in the Middle East emerged in full force. The Egyptian intellectual discourse is much preoccupied with the questions of the Egyptian national identity and there are two main competing perspectives presented: Pan-Arab nationalism versus the Middle Eastern perspective. The Pan-Arabic approach relies strongly on Arab affiliation, solidarity and commitment, while the Middle Eastern approach wishes to enlarge the scope of the new identity, including non-Arab elements such as Turkey, Iran and even Ethiopia. Israel can be accepted only in a larger regional framework.
According to the Egyptian perspective, the difficulty of integrating Israel into the region is not just cultural, linguistic and national. Israel is not located in a remote corner of the region - on the contrary, it is located right in the center, thus separating Egypt from her natural "Arab habitat" and natural extension in the Levant, restricting Egypt to Africa and the Third World. Furthermore, Israel is conceived as a threat to Egyptian and Arab hegemony because of its economic and technological superiority. Israel cannot be allowed to enjoy economic advantages before a comprehensive settlement has been reached. In the future, when peace is achieved, Israel can and should be integrated into the region on condition that it re-orients itself towards the Middle East, giving up her present clear-cut Western and European orientation.
The Israeli delegates reiterated that Israel's regional integration cannot be preconditioned by a unilateral demand to give up its identity, which is not monolithic but multicultural, embodying a mixture of various Jewish identities as well as those of the minorities living in Israel. The Arab world has to accept Israel in the future in a peaceful Middle East that is based on principles of multiculturalism - religious, ethnic and cultural pluralism.
Both groups of peace activists face opposition in their respective societies: The opposition in Egypt continues to oppose both the Camp David and Oslo agreements, regarding them as an illusion, leading to a dead end. In a "mirror image," these very arguments are used by the Israeli right to prove that there is no chance for real peace with the Arabs as they deny the very right of Israel to exist. Therefore, the so-called peace process is nothing more than a new strategy in the "stage-by-stage" scheme to destroy Israel.
After three days of continuous dialogue and debate, the parties modified and concluded the initial declarations of principles. It was agreed that the Egyptian Copenhagen Alliance chapter will initiate a new NGO as the counterpart of the Israeli Peace Now, and the two parties would announce their joint declaration of principles in a press conference.

The Breakthrough: A Joint Press Conference - Cairo, 7.6.1998

The Cairo Peace Society (CPS) was registered in March 1998 following a period of stalemate due to the opposition's attempt to prevent its establishment and legal registration, through various forms of intimidation by the press and by their respective syndicates against some of the founders of the society.
In a preliminary meeting, Egyptian ambassador Salah Bassiouny, the newly elected chairman of the CPS, declared that the role of the CPS was "to act within the law to strengthen the support for the peace process in Egyptian public opinion," adding that "the CPS will be engaged in educational and cultural activities with the intention of expressing to the Egyptian public opinion a more balanced view of Israeli society, namely that it is not monolithic and that it comprises progressive and peace-seeking elements as well. These steps will try to amend the hitherto distorted image of Israeli society due to long years without objective and balanced information."
The Israeli members had the opportunity to meet with some 30 founding members and sympathizers of the CPS, all of them outstanding members of the Egyptian intellectual community: lecturers, journalists, authors, ex- ambassadors, as well as distinguished members of the business community. In discussions with this group, the Israelis focused on the discrepancy between the Egyptian assertion that most of the Egyptian people want and support peace, while the media is almost unanimously hostile towards Israel. Against these assertions, the Egyptians claimed that the Israeli media was very selective and biased while reporting on Israeli-Egyptian relations. Their main concern was about the overemphasis of the attacks and slanders in the Egyptian "yellow press," while minimizing and ignoring information about peaceful and constructive relations manifested in tourism and economic relations, and ignoring facts like Israel being Egypt's second major trade partner in the Middle East.
The mirror image syndrome manifested itself once again during a discussion of the stereotypic and distorted concepts that prevail in both societies concerning the image of the other. Both societies suffer from psycho-political complexes regarding the "real" intentions of the other, due to their respective collective history and experiences.
The Israelis suffer from the "Holocaust complex" - an existential anxiety and a deep-seated fear of annihilation based on the traumatic Jewish history of many years of persecution in Europe that culminated in the Holocaust. Unfortunately, the Arabs don't know how to address and allay these fears that are also based on the past Arab threats to eliminate Israel and old slogans like "We will throw the Jews into the sea." The Egyptians suffer from an "imperialism complex" and the fear of being dominated by a European minority. The suspicion of Israel's real intentions is increased because of the latter's insistence on keeping its nuclear capability.

The Press Conference - June 1998

The press conference held at the Sheraton Gezirah was the first political event of its kind ever organized by a group of civilians in Cairo, not to mention the fact that the Israeli delegation was speaking directly and openly to Egyptian public opinion. The event attracted a large audience of more than 100 journalists, foreign embassy personnel, as well as members and supporters of the CPS.
The joint statement focused on the basic premises for peace in the Middle East: the principle of land for peace and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza alongside Israel. More specifically, Jerusalem should remain united while hosting two capitals for the two states. The Palestinian refugees will have the right to return to the Palestinian state and receive compensation for their property. The declaration unanimously condemned unilateral steps that endanger the peace process, including Jewish settlements and all acts of violence against civilians. Furthermore, the declaration stated that comprehensive peace should entail full Israeli withdrawal from Syrian and Lebanese territories, as well as aiming at a region free from weapons of mass destruction.
The presentation of the joint declaration was followed by an open and straightforward debate that went on for more than three hours. The audience questioned both the legitimacy and authenticity of the CPS in the Egyptian political and intellectual milieus, and the effectiveness of Peace Now as an active agent for change in Israeli public opinion; it also attacked the validity and acceptability of the joint document.
The late Lutfi Al-Khouly presented the case for a negotiated peace with the former enemy - Israel - bravely and forcefully, reiterating that peace was the only option for the people of the Middle East. He was addressing not only the actual audience but also the opposition to peace in Egypt and the entire Arab world: "To those who claim that they want peace without Israel, I say, There is no peace in the region without Israel. Israel is a fact and is here to stay. In return for ending the occupation and withdrawing to the pre-67 borders she is entitled to security and to be accepted as a state in the family of nations in the Middle East."
When Peace Now was repeatedly attacked for not being effective enough in bringing about a significant change in favor of peace in the Israeli public opinion, one of the participants called out in response: "Stop accusing the Israeli peace movement for just talking. Don't forget that these people have been crying out for peace for more than 20 years and they came here to Cairo to say that they want peace. You'd better start asking yourself whether the Arabs and the Egyptians really want peace."
In the aftermath of the press conference, President Mubarak held a formal reception for the members of the two movements. The meeting took place in Al-Ittihadiya Palace and lasted two hours, during which the president expressed his approval of the efforts of the two movements. Addressing the Egyptian CPS members the president said: "Go forward! You will meet objections, but, in due time, everybody will know that you were doing the right thing!" The meeting was widely covered by Egyptian TV and, for two days, the scenes portraying the president and the two delegations were shown several times on the First Channel.
One cannot underestimate the importance of this event. It was the first time in the history of the relations between Egypt and Israel that the unanimous boycott of the Egyptian intelligentsia over an open civil dialogue with Israeli peace forces was broken. Moreover, the press conference was followed by an intensive debate in the Egyptian press, allowing the advocates of peace and free dialogue with the Israeli peace forces to present their case, starting to address openly the pluralistic nature of Israeli society. The general feeling was that the press conference created "a point of no return" as far as the legitimization of Egyptian and Israeli peace movements' dialogue was concerned.

Concluding Remarks

From the first meeting with our Egyptian colleagues we asked ourselves to what extent is the Egyptian peace movement an authentic peace organization motivated by genuine pro-peace beliefs and attitudes, or rather an artificial structure created by the authorities at a specific time and for specific and short-lived purposes.
During our two meetings with our CPS colleagues, we were granted formal receptions by President Mubarak, Foreign Minister Amr Moussa and Dr. Osama El-Baz, the president's senior political advisor. These meetings made it clear to us that our Egyptian colleagues held very intimate and close relations with their authorities. Yet this does not prove that their action was not authentic. We understood that the purpose of these meetings was to support the activity of the Egyptian peace activists and strengthen their position in the local public opinion. This course of action revealed to us the very different nature of the political circumstances in which the two movements, the Egyptian and the Israeli, act. The Israeli Peace Now is a grass-roots movement, aiming to impact on public opinion from below, yearning to create an upward movement of influence that will eventually affect the decision-makers. In Egypt the situation is different: in order to be able to impact on public opinion, one must have the legitimization and sanction of the authorities. We firmly believe that our Egyptian colleagues have a sincere and genuine motivation to push forward the peace process for the benefit of their society. This motivation is based on their personal conviction that peace is a strategic interest for Egypt, and the only realistic option for a better future for the region as a whole.
What is the impact of the Egyptian peace movement more than three years after its establishment? One year after the Sheraton press conference, the International Alliance held a large-scale public peace conference in Cairo in June 1999 with more than 200 participants. The public reaction to this event was enormous - both positive and negative - and the issue is now ever-present in Egyptian intellectual discourse and widely represented in the international Arab written and electronic media. More and more independent intellectuals and private people speak out freely and directly in favor of peace with Israel. There are many Israelis who would like to see a rapid process of normalization with Egypt, i.e., cultural, educational and other bilateral civil projects. These people have to be patient. It seems that until a comprehensive peace in the region is achieved, the only feasible connection between the two societies is a political dialogue, enabling us through an exchange of views and information to become acquainted with the sensitivities and needs of the other side. It emphasizes common views and brings to light disagreements.

(1) The Israeli participants in these meetings were: Dr. Mordechai Bar-On, a historian, former MK and colonel (Ret.) in the IDF; Prof. Arieh Arnon, economics, Ben-Gurion University; Prof. Dan Jacobson, labor studies; Prof. Jochanan Peres, sociology, Tel Aviv University; Yehudith Harel, organizational consultant; Motty Awerbuch, playwright. The Egyptian participants were: The late Lutfi Al-Khouly, author, playwright, leading journalist and intellectual; Dr. Abdel Monem Said Ali, head of the Al-Ahram Center for Strategic Studies; Ambassador (Ret.) Salah Bassiouny; Mr. Ali Al-Shalakany, lawyer and intellectual; Prof. Mourad Wahbah, philosopher, Ein Shams University; and engineer Rida Muharram.
(2) Al-Khouly had a remarkable record, not just as a leading leftist Egyptian intellectual, author, playwright, journalist and editor of a prestigious opinion page in Al-Ahram, but also as a leading fighter for the Palestinian cause. He considered any bilateral and hence "separate" peace with Israel as betraying Palestinian and Arab interests. Therefore, the late Al-Khouly opposed the visit of president Sadat to Israel, became a vehement and outspoken opponent and critic of the Camp David Accords, and even left Egypt in 1979, when his position became most untenable, and returned only after Sadat's death. While in self-imposed exile in Tunisia, his friend and ally Yasser Arafat convinced him that peace with the Israelis was inevitable. Al-Khouly made a historic step when he agreed to join the Madrid delegation in 1991 and later to initiate the Copenhagen Group. After the murder of prime minister Rabin, Al-Khouly and other prominent members of the Egyptian group came to the conclusion that disregarding and boycotting the Israeli peace forces is a counterproductive strategy for those who wish to promote a politically negotiated peace in the region. Thus Al-Khouly and the other members of the Egyptian peace movement made a major ideological shift that enabled them to engage in dialogue with Israelis.