Egypt and Israel – Two New Jersey Stories

I am following the street uprisings in Egypt with a most profound sense of apprehension. There is no doubt in my mind as to the ultimate dreadful outcome.

President Hosni Mubarak will be deposed within the next three months.  Although leading dissident and former United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei will be the new nominal leader of the Egyptian government, real power will be held by the Muslim Brotherhood.  One can expect that within days after the Muslim Brotherhood gains control, the Egyptian government will sever diplomatic relations with Israel and withdraw its recognition of the Jewish State’s right to exist.

Just as Iran serves as a base for Shiite Islamic terrorism, Egypt will serve as a base for Sunni Islamic terrorism.  Iran presently is the patron of the terrorist Hezbollah forces in Lebanon, and Egypt will henceforth be the patron for Hamas terrorist forces in Gaza.   While Mubarak blocked access to forces attempting to provide weapons to Hamas from the Sinai, one can expect that the Sinai will now become a superhighway through which Hamas will be supplied the most sophisticated terrorist military equipment.

Historically, there has been real antipathy between Sunni and Shiite nations, as exemplified by the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.  The hatred that Sunni and Shiite Muslim fundamentalists feel towards Israel, however, has resulted in recent collaboration between the terrorist Shiite state of Iran and the terrorist Sunni forces of Hamas.  One can expect that eventually, the historic animus between Sunni and Shiite Muslims will result in Egypt and Iran becoming bitter adversarial nations.

Sunni and Shiite Muslim fundamentalists both want to destroy Israel and expel the Jews from the Middle East, however.  Accordingly, when it comes to Israel, the new government in Egypt and the government in Iran will cooperate in efforts to utilize their respective terrorist subsidiaries, Hamas and Hezbollah to make life unbearable for the people of Israel.

Accordingly, within the next few years, Israel will be compelled to reoccupy Gaza to crush Hamas terrorism.  Eventually, this will bring Israel into conflict with Egypt.

My pessimistic analysis is not only based on my perspective as a strong Jewish supporter of Israel.

As an undergraduate at Northwestern University, I studied the Arab world in depth under the tutelage of the late Dr. Ibrahim Abu-LuGhod, a Palestinian Arab who was one of the two representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) who met with former Secretary of State George Shultz after the United States opened diplomatic contacts with the PLO at the end of the Reagan administration, the other representative being the late Dr. Edward Said of Columbia University.  

Under Dr. Abu-LuGhod’s direction, I completed an independent study course on the politics of the Arab world.  With his assistance, I wrote my political science honors thesis on the Palestinian Arab nationalist movement.

Sadly, my knowledge of the Middle East leads me to the inescapable conclusion that the peace between Israel and Egypt, which has existed since 1977 and for which a great man, former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat gave his life, will soon be at its end.  Many observers have termed it a “cold peace”.

Two New Jersey stories demonstrate, however, that this peace was much warmer than most people realize.  The first story involved former Governor Christie Whitman, in whose administration I proudly served, an excellent governor and a classy and great lady.  The second story involved a person I love most dearly and of whom I am most proud, my son Neil.

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I served as Assistant Commissioner of the former Department of Commerce and Economic Development during the first term of the Whitman administration and as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission during the second term.  I also had  another role in which I served unofficially as a liaison for Governor Whitman with the New Jersey Jewish community.

In this role, I reviewed and gave recommendations on invitations Governor Whitman received to appear before Jewish religious and secular organizations.  Her speechwriters also sent to me for my review speeches to be presented before Jewish audiences.  Finally, I was often a “point person” with whom Jewish leaders met to convey to the Governor their concerns about various issues affecting the Jewish community.

All this was a labor of love for me.  I can say without hyperbole that Governor Whitman had the best relationship with a statewide Jewish community of any governor in the nation during her tenure.  The strong support she received from the Jewish community was a key factor in her reelection in 1997.

Governor Whitman’s personal and governmental relationship with the State of Israel was unique among American governors of her era.  It began with her trip to Israel in 1992, prior to her becoming governor in 1994.  During her initial visit to Israel, Israeli leaders such as the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin actually sought her friendship.  Once elected as governor, Whitman became the national leader among American governors on economic development issues.  This was a key factor in the increasing trade and mutual investment between New Jersey and Israeli businesses during the 1990s.

I served as one of the coordinators of Governor Whitman’s 1996 trade mission to Israel in which over one hundred companies participated, together with various New Jersey governmental and political leaders and media.  This trip took place twenty-one months after the Whitman administration opened New Jersey’s first trade office in Israel in the city of Ra’anana.

Thus, it should not have surprised me how Governor Whitman was received by Israelis on that trip as a beloved American leader.  The Jerusalem Post ran a story about her as a future American President.  Everywhere she went, Israelis enthusiastically wanted to greet her.

The adulation of the Israeli public for Christie Whitman did not stop with that trade mission.  Two years later, in 1998, I was informed that the Orthodox Jewish outreach organization, Aish HaTorah had invited her to Jerusalem to receive their Friend of Zion Award.

I recommended with alacrity that Governor Whitman accept this award.  Aish HaTorah has an outstanding reputation in both Israel and the United States for not only its religious outreach but also its good communal works.  The organization has received the endorsement of both Jewish and Gentile prominent American politicians and show business people.

In the process of planning the trip, I received a phone call from the Governor’s office as to the possibility of her visiting Egypt after the Jerusalem Aish HaTorah event.  This had been suggested by one of Governor Whitman’s friends.

The trip to Egypt was easily arranged for Governor Whitman by her close Israeli friend, Ze’ev Bielski, the then Mayor of Ra’anana and today a member of the K’nesset, Israel’s parliament.  The fact that Governor Whitman was coming to Egypt from Israel, a nation with whom Egypt had fought four wars made no difference. Her trip to Egypt went smoothly, and the Egyptians with whom she met treated her most warmly.

Regardless of the state of relations then existing between the governments of Israel and Egypt, it was clear from the Whitman visit and the ease of arranging the trip between Bielski and his Egyptian counterparts that relations between the peoples of Israel and Egypt had improved considerably since th
e Sadat 1977 visit to Jerusalem.  How much relations had warmed between the two peoples became abundantly clear to me as a result of experiences of my son, Neil, in Israel during the academic year of 2000-2001.

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Neil graduated from the University of Maryland in 2002 with a double degree in government and psychology.  He spent his junior year, 2000-2001 in the University Study-Abroad Program as a student in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Rothberg International School.

That academic year was a most difficult one for the Rothberg International School.  Another Palestinian Arab intifada began with the Temple Mount Palestinian Arab riots in September, 2000, which Neil saw from his dorm on Mount Scopus and described to me over the phone as they were happening.

As a result of the intifada, the Rothberg School incurred a withdrawal of 300 of its 400 students during that academic year of 2000-2001.  I am proud that Neil was one of the 100 students who remained enrolled in the Rothberg School throughout that entire academic year.

I must say that during that year, I felt more tension than Neil.  Every time I would read on the Internet about some terrorist attack in Jerusalem, I would call him.  He was fine – I was a nervous wreck.

One time during the spring of 2001, Neil had an academic break of ten days.  I called him from New Jersey and asked where he was going.  He responded, “To Dahab.”

I asked him, “Where’s Dahab?  I never heard of that place?”

He responded, “It’s a resort in the Sinai, in Egypt.”

I shouted into the phone loud enough for him to hear me in Jerusalem, “How can you go to Egypt in the middle of all these tensions between Israel and the Arab world?”

“Dad, I’ve been to Dahab before.  The people are very friendly to Israelis and Jewish tourists, trust me.”

My next call was to Michael Reiner, an Israeli close friend of Governor Whitman and the director of the New Jersey Trade Office in Ra’anana.  I asked him, “Michael, how safe is it for my son to be travelling to Dahab?”

Michael answered without hesitation, “Your son is safer in Dahab than he would be if he stayed in Jerusalem.”

Michael was right.  Neil went to Dahab for a week, and the Egyptians treated him with the utmost of friendliness and hospitality.

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Sadly, the era of good feeling between Israelis and Egyptians, as exemplified by the experiences of former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman and former New Jerseyan (now a New Yorker) Neil Steinberg, is now over, due to the fanaticism of the Islamic fundamentalists who will soon control Egypt.

I hold no brief for Hosni Mubarak.  His failure to democratize his regime and improve living conditions for the Egyptian people created conditions in which the Muslim Brotherhood could seize power.  In the words of former U.S. President John F. Kennedy, those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.

That the members of the Muslim Brotherhood are fundamentalist extremist supporters of terrorism, however, is beyond dispute.  Even the late former Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser, a dedicated Pan-Arabist who opposed Israel and Zionism vigorously, wanted nothing to do with the Muslim Brotherhood and banned the movement in 1954.

It is true that the Muslim Brotherhood is not the only group participating in the current uprisings in Egypt.  There are many good rank and file citizens of Egypt who are participating in these protests due to their disgust with the autocratic Mubarak regime and the miserable living conditions and poverty for most Egyptians.

It is also true that the Muslim Brotherhood has muted its religious message recently in the interest of political pragmatism.  Yet there is no doubt of the Muslim Brotherhood’s ultimate goals in the domestic and international sphere: 1) the transformation of Egypt into a nation governed strictly by a fundamentalist implementation of Sharia, the sacred  Islamic law; and 2) the destruction of the State of Israel.

Finally, as I stated above, I have no doubt that due to their organizational and political effectiveness, the Muslim Brotherhood will soon attain control of the Egyptian government, reducing Mohamed ElBaradei to figurehead status.

Shiite Muslim fundamentalists control Iran, and Sunni Muslim fundamentalists will soon control Egypt.  My fear is that the extreme fundamentalist branch of the Sunni Wahhabi movement may soon transform the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia into the Islamic Republic of Saudi Arabia.

We are moving into a brave new world in the Middle East – a most frightening one.  I have lived through three wars between Israel and Egypt (1956, 1967, and 1973) and a peace which lasted 34 years.  I am most fearful as to what the future holds between Israelis and Egyptians.

Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush. Region 2 EPA consists of the states of New York and New Jersey, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and eight federally recognized Indian nations. Under former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman, he served as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission. He currently serves on the political science faculty of Monmouth University.