Tapes Show Egyptian Leaders’ Quiet Acceptance of U.S. Recognition of Jerusalem

Arab governments publicly condemned President Trump’s statement on Jerusalem but criticism in state-owned and pro-government media across the Arab world was muted.
Abir Sultan/European Pressphoto Agency

As President Trump moved last month to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, an Egyptian intelligence officer quietly placed phone calls to the hosts of several influential talk shows in Egypt.

“Like all our Arab brothers,” Egypt would denounce the decision in public, the officer, Capt. Ashraf al-Kholi, told the hosts.

But strife with Israel was not in Egypt’s national interest, Captain Kholi said. He told the hosts that instead of condemning the decision, they should persuade their viewers to accept it. Palestinians, he suggested, should content themselves with the dreary West Bank town that currently houses the Palestinian Authority, Ramallah.

“How is Jerusalem different from Ramallah, really?” Captain Kholi asked repeatedly in four audio recordings of his telephone calls obtained by The New York Times.

“Exactly that,” agreed one host, Azmi Megahed, who confirmed the authenticity of the recording.

For decades, powerful Arab states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia have publicly criticized Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, while privately acquiescing to Israel’s continued occupation of territory the Palestinians claim as their homeland.

But now a de facto alliance against shared foes such as Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic State militants and the Arab Spring uprisings is drawing the Arab leaders into an ever-closer collaboration with their one-time nemesis, Israel — producing especially stark juxtapositions between their posturing in public and private.

Mr. Trump’s decision broke with a central premise of 50 years of American-sponsored peace talks, defied decades of Arab demands that East Jerusalem be the capital of a Palestinian state, and stoked fears of a violent backlash across the Middle East.

Arab governments, mindful of the popular sympathy for the Palestinian cause, rushed to publicly condemn it.

Egyptian state media reported that President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi had personally protested to Mr. Trump. Egyptian religious leaders close to the government refused to meet with Vice President Mike Pence, and Egypt submitted a United Nations Security Council resolution demanding a reversal of Mr. Trump’s decision. (The United States vetoed the resolution, although the General Assembly adopted a similar one, over American objections, days later.)

King Salman of Saudi Arabia, arguably the most influential Arab state, also publicly denounced Mr. Trump’s decision.

At the same time, though, the kingdom had already quietly signaled its acquiescence or even tacit approval of the Israeli claim to Jerusalem. Days before Mr. Trump’s announcement, the Saudi crown prince, Mohamed bin Salman, privately urged the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, to accept a radically curtailed vision of statehood without a capital in East Jerusalem, according to Palestinian, Arab and European officials who have heard Mr. Abbas’s version of events.

Saudi Arabia publicly disputed those reports.

The hosts Captain Kholi called all heeded his advice, and most other voices in the state-owned and pro-government news media across the Arab world were also strikingly muted, even unemotional, about the status of Jerusalem. Such a response would have been all but unthinkable even a decade ago, much less during the period between 1948 and 1973, when Egypt and its Arab allies fought three wars against Israel.

Shibley Telhami, a scholar of the region at the University of Maryland and the Brookings Institution, called the Arab states’ acceptance of the decision “transformational.”

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SOURCE: NY Times, David D. Kirkpatrick