Reporter’s notebook: Egypt’s greatest fear: New Israeli immigrants

115.jpg The warm smile, anecdotal stories and freshly-squeezed lemonade almost make me miss the fact that I have just been told I am more dangerous than Iran’s nuclear program. It’s a startling idea for a petite Jewish woman like myself, who has traveled briefly to this large Arab country from Israel, where doomsday headlines about Iran are printed on an almost daily basis. But it’s not unusual on the street in Cairo, where a pop song, “I Hate Israel,” can be heard blaring from car radios amid the constant honking of their horns.

Sitting in his Cairo office, veteran Egyptian diplomat Gamal Bayoumi dismisses with a wave of his hand the popular Israeli political belief that among moderate Muslim Arabs like himself, a nuclear Iran is fast replacing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the destabilizing force in the region.

“Be serious. Iran is a threat to me?” he says with an incredulous look on his face. Then, almost nonchalantly, he looks straight at me from across his desk and remarks that he is more worried about the influx into Israel of new immigrants like myself.

“Do you think you [Israel] can adopt all the Jews in the world? Then you will need more land, and that is what is frightening us, more than the nuclear weapons of Iran.”

He calculates that the Iranian nuclear program is still five years away from completion. “Let us wait and see. The immediate threat is this one.”

I assure him that Israel is not interested in expanding beyond its existing borders.

“You think so?” he says. “I’m not so sure. If you want to continue this policy of accepting more and more Jewish immigrants, then you will be forced to find places for them.”

As an adviser to Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa, the former assistant foreign minister from 1995-2001 and the former head of that office’s Israel desk in 1994, Bayoumi comes to the topic of Israel with a unique perspective on the matter.

Although it has been close to 30 years since former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat made peace with Israel, friendliness toward Israelis is not something that one takes for granted among Egyptians.

Like his country, Bayoumi appears to have a love-hate relationship with Israel. When he started in the Foreign Ministry in 1961, Bayoumi refused to shake hands, let alone converse, with an Israeli as he easily does now, some 46 years later, when he clears close to two hours to speak with me.

As the kind of person who answers every question with a story, he peppers the interview with stories about past Israeli politicians and proudly counts Israelis as his friends. He boasts of the photographs he has of himself with Vice Premier Shimon Peres and former President Ezer Weizman.

“I believe the elite can do it,” says Bayoumi, but he cautions, “Do not ask a layman to fall in love with you Israelis.”

Bayoumi blames that animosity toward Israel on its actions against the Palestinians in the territories and on its attacks on Lebanon.

“Why should we not be upset if Israel attacks Gaza?” he says. On top of these questions, another one burns in his mind: If Israel truly pursues peace, why does it possess nuclear weapons?

I tell him that Israel has always refuted this charge.

“Yes, okay,” he says, but adds that he is unimpressed by this denial, given that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made a statement in December which many interpreted as confirmation that these nuclear weapons exist.

“Olmert said it. It was a slip of the tongue, but he said it. It is not a secret that our friends in Israel have 300 warheads. You have a treaty with Egypt. You have a treaty with Jordan – and if you want it, a treaty with Syria. Where will you use [the nuclear weapons]? This must be explained,” he says.

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