April 5, 2009 / 8:30 AM / in 9 years

Israel's Cairo embassy at 30: lonely but hopeful

CAIRO (Reuters) - Rabab Hassan, a willowy 27-year-old Egyptian with a face not soon forgotten, has an unusual question that she puts to new suitors. “I tell him where I work, and ask if he’s comfortable with that. I won’t change my work,” she says from her desk at the Israeli embassy’s public affairs division, on a floor reserved for a dozen-odd local staffers.

She laughs: “No one has objected so far.”

Sanguine though Hassan sounds, her account tells of the political and personal tensions that beset the cordoned-off mission, three decades into a landmark Egyptian peace accord with Israel which finds few celebrants in Cairo.

Israelis see the embassy as a crucial foothold in a Middle East largely hostile or, at best, indifferent to them. Yet many Egyptians resent being the first to have engaged a Jewish state whose presence Arabs often consider anathema, and any sympathies are sapped by the plight of the Palestinians.

So Ambassador Shalom Cohen, like the eight Israeli envoys before him, keeps a low profile -- and not just because of the inscrutable security regimen that the embassy maintains, in strict cooperation with Egyptian authorities.

“In four years here, I’ve never been asked by the newspapers to publish a statement, nor been invited to appear on a television panel,” he laments during an interview at his high-walled villa in Cairo’s leafy Maadi district.

“Israel’s peace with Egypt is important, strategic, viable, but for me there have been frustrations on the human level.”

Cohen’s staff have been especially on guard since Israel’s Gaza war killed 1,300 Palestinians and triggered mass protests.

Egypt clamped down on demonstrations.

Hassan declines to be photographed by Reuters, worried she might be recognized and harassed in the street: “Egyptians say: ‘We are Arabs, so if Israel fights Arabs, why have peace?'”

Now the diplomats face fallout over the advent of a rightist Israeli government whose Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman last year proposed that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak either make more reciprocal visits to Jerusalem -- or “go to hell.”

“I think this (Lieberman’s appointment) could be an indication they don’t want to reach a serious dialogue with Egypt,” said Ahmed Maher, former Egyptian foreign minister.

SLOW RAPPROCHEMENT

By signing the 1979 Camp David accord with Israel, Egypt won back the occupied Sinai -- over which it launched a war six years prior -- and secured vital U.S. aid grants. There is scant sense of any broader rapprochement.

Mubarak has visited just once during his 27 years in power, for the funeral of the slain statesman Yitzhak Rabin. Egypt’s state media sometimes inveigh against Israel with images smacking of anti-Semitism. Cultural unions boycott Israeli productions.

Police often grill Egyptians who request travel visas to Israel.

But Shalom and his colleagues are unanimous in their praise for ordinary Egyptians, noting that Israeli tourists, though very rare nowadays, roam Cairo’s attractions without real fear.

“There’s a laissez-faire quality and a warmth about the people here that’s really entrancing,” says Benny Sharoni, the embassy’s political affairs and cultural attache, who spends much of his time overcoming official firewalls.

After “The Band’s Visit,” an acclaimed Israeli romantic drama about itinerant Egyptian musicians, was barred from a Cairo film festival and local cinemas, Sharoni arranged a private screening in a hotel. The whole enterprise took a year.

Israel has two big bilateral deals with Egypt, for textile exports and natural gas supplies. It also provides Egypt with agricultural advisers -- a project that Galit Baram, the embassy’s economic attache, says Cairo just slashed by half.

“They gave budget reasons, but the sense was that it was also a protest measure over Gaza,” says Baram.

The embassy takes up the top three stories of a sooty apartment bloc on the Nile corniche dwarfed by business towers and luxury hotels. From traffic level, the lone blue-and-white Israeli flag could be mistaken for a shirt hung out to dry.

“When we first moved in, 30 years ago, this building was bright and new and modern,” Cohen says wryly. “Cairo has grown.”

Administrative secretary Fawzia Abdel Latif, an Egyptian with the embassy since 1984, says her workload has dipped significantly. But she hopes for better days.

“If the atmosphere between Egypt and Israel is positive and there is no crisis, it affects the public. Everyone comes in,” she says in Hebrew acquired at university and during travels in Israel. “We have peace between us, and this is in our interest.”

Additional reporting by Cynthia Johnston

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