New Egyptian ambassador brings Israel ‘message of peace’

‘We are really working for mutual trust and transparency,’ Atef Salem tells Peres in Jerusalem, bring letter from Morsi to his ‘great and good friend’; Jordanian envoy also presents credentials

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

New Egyptian Ambassador Salem, left, with then-president Shimon Peres in his Jerusalem residence in October 2012 (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)
New Egyptian Ambassador Salem, left, with then-president Shimon Peres in his Jerusalem residence in October 2012 (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

Incoming ambassadors from Egypt and Jordan presented their credentials to President Shimon Peres on Wednesday, both of them affirming their governments’ desires to maintain their respective peace treaties with Israel and to further peace in the Middle East.

“I came with the message of peace and I came to confirm that we are really working for mutual trust and transparency,” Ambassador Atef Salem of Egypt told Peres at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem. “We are committed to all the agreements we signed with Israel and we’re also committed to the peace treaty with Israel.”

The arrival of the two new envoys — both career diplomats — appeared to mark a rare and significant positive step amid Israel’s complex relations with its Arab neighbors. While Jerusalem’s ties with Amman and Cairo are formally intact, relations between the governments and citizens have of late been frosty at best, and the two appointments come after a prolonged period in which both posts were vacant.

During a solemn ceremony, Salem, the new Egyptian ambassador in Tel Aviv, handed Peres his letter of credence — a diplomatic missive in which one head of state asks his or her counterpart to accept the bearer as new ambassador.

“Great and good friend,” Egypt’s Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, wrote in the letter to his Israeli counterpart, “being desirous of maintaining and strengthening the cordial relations which so happily exist between our two countries, I have selected Mr. Atef Mohamed Salem Sayed El Ahl to be our ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary.” Morsi closed his letter, which largely followed standard diplomatic language for the exchange of ambassadors, by expressing “highest esteem and consideration.”

The letter of credence, signed by President Mohammed Morsi (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)
The letter of credence signed by President Mohammed Morsi (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

Addressing Salem, Peres said Israel considered Egypt the “leading country of the Arab world.” Peres went on to stress the importance of the 1979 peace treaty: “I believe that all of us will, for the sake of our young generation, keep the peace. The peace saves the lives of tens of thousands of young people, in Egypt, the Middle East and Israel,” Peres told Salem. “I know it’s not simple, I know there are people who try to frustrate peace. I really believe that both our governments will do whatever [they] can to keep it deep, sincere, strong and serious for the sake of your people, for the sake of our people.”

Peres expressed his wish to “introduce a tone of friendship instead of a sense of suspicion” to the bilateral relations. “I am sure that you will find here so many friends,” he told Salem.

Salem assured his Israeli host that the Egyptian government agreed with his vision of a peaceful future for the young generation. “We’re in the same boat, thinking the same way,” and Egypt’s new constitution is going to “preserve the idea of [a] moderate and civilian state in Egypt,” Salem pledged.

Salem has previously served as Egypt’s consul-general in Eilat and is considered by Foreign Ministry officials as someone who knows Israel well and maintains a friendly attitude toward the country. “If that’s not a sign of good relations, then what is?” a Foreign Ministry official dealing with Arab countries told The Times of Israel in describing the appointment.

There had not been an Egyptian ambassador in Israel since August 2011, when Cairo recalled Yasser Reda from Tel Aviv to protest the deaths of five Egyptian servicemen who were killed during a terrorist infiltration from the Sinai in which eight Israelis died.

The new ambassador from Jordan, Walid Obeidat, presented his credentials to Peres right after Salem, filling a post that had been vacant since July 2010, when Amman withdrew its last envoy to Israel, Ali Al-Ayed.

Jordanian officials have reportedly said that sending a new envoy to Tel Aviv does not mark a warming of relations but was rather a purely technical step. But the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem hailed Obeidat’s posting.

“In addition to the symbolic aspects of the ceremony, the accreditation of the new ambassadors represents an important tier in Israel’s relationship with Egypt and Jordan,” the ministry said in a statement released Wednesday. “Their inauguration will enhance bilateral relations and will help to develop cooperation for peace and economic prosperity, for the mutual benefit of all parties. The regular relations between the countries will continue to make an essential contribution to regional stability and to the promotion of peace in the Middle East.”

Not everyone in Jordan was happy about the appointment of a new envoy to Israel: Obeidat, a member of one of the largest northern Jordanian tribes, has been criticized by members of his tribe for accepting the post.

“He who accepts this post will have crossed all the red lines and seriously harms members of his tribe, who disassociate from him,” a statement recently released by members of the Obeidat tribe read. “This tribe was and will remain loyal to its nation and will not reconcile with its enemies, in order to liberate all Palestinian land.”

In similar vein, a group of Jordanian teachers this week condemned a proposal to introduce Holocaust studies to curricula in schools in Palestinian refugee camps, saying such a move would “equate the butcher and the victim.”

Relations between Cairo and Jerusalem have been increasingly tense since Egypt’s longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak was ousted last year in the throes of the Arab Spring. Tensions flared last September, after the cross-border attack, when the Israeli Embassy in Cairo was attacked by thousands of angry protesters.

In June, Morsi — the candidate of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood — became Egypt’s first freely elected president. His ascent to power sparked fears among Israelis regarding the future of the 1979 peace treaty. While senior Muslim Brotherhood members continue to rail against Israel — the movement’s Supreme Guide Mohammed Badie last week demanded Egypt replace negotiations with Israel with “holy jihad” — Morsi has said he intends to honor all of Egypt’s international obligations and treaties.

The letter of credence Morsi sent to Peres on Wednesday is also significant in light of an episode that occurred earlier this summer. In July, Peres’s office said it had received a friendly letter from Morsi in which the Egyptian leader said his country was committed to regional security and stability, including for the Israeli people. After Israeli media reported on the missive, a spokesman for Morsi denied any correspondence had been sent to Peres. Some analysts saw Morsi’s friendly overture to his Israeli counterpart as an encouraging sign that the new president was acting in accordance with diplomatic protocol, and expressed concern that Israel had embarrassed him by publicizing the letter.

Israel’s ambassador to Egypt, Yaacov Amitai, was warmly received by Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi in February, when Egypt was still controlled by the country’s military council.

“The presentation of credentials was held in a cordial atmosphere,” the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem stated at the time in a statement. Amitai, who arrived in Cairo in December 2011, and Tantawi spoke to each other, reiterating “the importance of the peace agreement and cooperation” for both countries,” according to the statement.

While Israel still does not have a new embassy in Cairo, Amitai spends most weekdays and some weekends in Egypt, a diplomatic official told The Times of Israel.

But what exactly Salem’s appointment as ambassador means for the future of bilateral relations will remain to be seen. For one, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman said he expects ties to include more than merely the exchange of ambassadors.

“It’s an important step in the right direction. But it’s not enough,” he said in September of Salem’s appointment. “It is important for two states that have diplomatic relations and signed a peace treaty to have relations — they can be cold but at least they should be normal.”

Liberman then quipped: “The State of Israel cannot be the mistress of the Middle East: Everybody is enjoying her but nobody is willing to admit having relations with her. This kind of diplomacy is unacceptable.”

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