Israelis might well have felt disheartened this week by some harsh reactions in Egypt and Jordan to the appointment of new ambassadors to Israel.
Many Egyptians could not believe that their new Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi would possibly send a letter to Israeli President Shimon Peres beginning with the words “great and good friend” and ending with “highest esteem and consideration.” In Jordan, members of the new ambassador’s clan tried to thwart his appointment; and after failing to do so, declared public mourning.
But a closer look at the dynamics of these reactions offers some interesting insights into Egypt and Jordan’s inner workings; the two stories say rather more about internal dynamics and dilemmas in the two neighboring states than about the specifics of their relationships with Israel.
It took Egyptian presidential spokesman Yasser Ali more than a day to confirm that the letter of accreditation presented by Ambassador Atef Salem to Shimon Peres was “100 percent correct.” In the interim, the presidency was embarrassed by a public uproar and knee-jerk reactions from members of Morsi’s own Muslim Brotherhood camp — people like Gamal Muhammad Heshmat, who assured Al-Ahram that the letter was a “Zionist fabrication.”
Remarkably, a similar dynamic had unfolded in July, when Morsi politely responded to Peres’s Ramadan greetings in a signed letter. Except that, in that case, following publication of the letter by Peres’s office — which had checked with Morsi’s people first that it was okay to release the letter — Morsi’s men absurdly denied ever sending it.
Antipathy towards Israel has become a marker of modern Arab identity, but the drama which unfolded in Egypt and Jordan this week has surprisingly little to do with the Jewish state
Morsi’s reaction (or lack thereof) to such incidents should not come as a surprise. In its relations with the West generally, the Egyptian presidency is in a perpetual state of confusion and embarrassment. The Muslim Brotherhood was meant to reflect the public’s animosity towards Israel and the United States, but it cannot seem to go all the way.
The ousted regime of Hosni Mubarak was often accused of inconsistency between fiery public statements and behind-the-scenes contact with Israel and the West. Now, Morsi is facing the same dilemma. As he agonizes, zigs and zags, contradictory reports, rumors and conspiracy theories run wild, and the Egyptian presidency is all the weaker for it.
In Jordan, the dynamics are somewhat different. No one has illusions about the close relations between the Hashemites and Israel, dating back many decades.
But unlike in the past, the regime’s legitimacy is increasingly being questioned. By pressuring Walid Obeidat to forgo his appointment to Israel, the large Obeidat clan was defying King Abdullah. It was telling the monarch that it would not tarnish its name by associating with Israel, which it had historically fought. The public admonition of the regime could not be clearer. One Jordanian analyst argued that the process actually ran deeper and darker, saying that the appointment was a punishment — that Abdullah was trying to deal a blow to Ahmad Obeidat, a former prime minister and outspoken proponent of political reform.
Antipathy towards Israel has become a marker of modern Arab identity, but there are plenty of other complex forces at play today in Israel’s unstable, unpredictable neighboring states. And the dramas which unfolded in Egypt and Jordan this week — ostensibly centered on Israel — were actually about rather more than relations with the Jewish state.