Israel's Cairo embassy at 30: lonely but hopeful

Sun Apr 5, 2009 4:42am EDT
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By Dan Williams

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.   Continued...