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Ambassador Amira Oron in front of the Great Pyramids in Giza, Egypt, in an undated photo. The provided photo has been digitally altered by The Times of Israel for artistic effect. (Courtesy: Amira Oron)
Ambassador Amira Oron in front of the Great Pyramids in Giza, Egypt, in an undated photo. The provided photo has been digitally altered by The Times of Israel for artistic effect. (Courtesy: Amira Oron)
Interview

With an outstretched hand, an ambassador brings Israel back into Egypt

Returning to Cairo as Jerusalem’s top diplomat there, Amira Oron says there are plenty of opportunities to broaden ties and sees Egyptians finally warming up to the Jewish state

On the afternoon of June 7, I was sitting down for a meeting at the Egyptian embassy in Tel Aviv when my phone began to buzz and a message flashed on the screen.

“18 months after committee approval, Amira Oron finally okayed by government as Israel’s ambassador to Egypt,” it read.

“You just got a new ambassador today,” I said to the Egyptian diplomat I had been chatting with.

My host flashed a huge grin. “Everyone in Egypt knows Amira,” he said. “We’re delighted she’s coming. We’ve been waiting for this for a long time.”

So had Oron. In 1991 as a cadet in Israel’s diplomatic corps, Oron told her friend Ditza Froim that she would be Israel’s first female ambassador to Cairo. It took 29 years, including a long delay following her initial nomination while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu mulled installing Likud lawmaker Ayoub Kara in the post instead, but in 2020 the prediction came true.

Nearly half a year after taking up one of Israel’s most sensitive diplomatic positions in September, Oron tells the Times of Israel that relations with Egypt are looking up, that anti-Israel sentiment in the country is fading, and that reports of a Netanyahu trip to Cairo are premature, though Israel is working to make it happen.

A veteran in the diplomatic corps and fluent Arabic speaker, Oron, 54, has previously served as a junior diplomat in Egypt, a deputy spokesperson at the Foreign Ministry and was stationed in Ankara as Israel’s chargé d’affaires following the Gaza flotilla raid, when Turkey-Israel ties were downgraded, making her the highest level Israeli diplomat there.

Amira Oron backdropped by Cairo in an undated photo. (Courtesy: Amira Oron)

Oron’s arrival came over a year after Israel’s previous ambassador David Govrin left the post. Govrin was officially acting ambassador until she arrived in September 2020, but the lack of a full ambassador running things had hampered diplomatic activity.

“So far it’s been fascinating, interesting and even exciting. I am working to bolster our activities in Egypt, to expand and diversify them. When I got here, the embassy was not working as well as it could have. I know the place well and I hope to get it back on track as soon as possible.”

Govrin’s tenure in Egypt was interrupted by an eight-month period during which he and his staff worked from Israel due to unspecified security threats, a reminder of the tense atmosphere Israeli diplomats in Cairo work under.

Egyptian protesters demolish a concrete wall protecting the Israeli embassy in Cairo, September 9, 2011 (photo credit: AP/Amr Nabil)
Egyptian protesters demolish a concrete wall protecting the Israeli embassy in Cairo, September 9, 2011. ( AP/Amr Nabil)

In 2011, Egyptian protesters stormed an outer wall of the Israeli embassy in the capital’s Giza district, forcing the evacuation of its diplomatic staff. In 2015, Israel reopened its mission in a new location in Cairo’s leafy Maadi neighborhood. Oron, who is reluctant to talk about the security concerns, says the embassy may move again in three or four years.

Then-Foreign Ministry director-general Dore Gold attends a ceremony marking the reopening of Israel’s embassy in Cairo, Egypt, on Wednesday, September 9, 2015 (Foreign Ministry)

“President [Abdel-Fatah] el-Sissi and his government are building a new administrative capital, about 60 kilometers (37 miles) east of central Cairo. All government ministries will relocate out there, as well as the parliament, the president’s office and more. A diplomatic quarter is also planned and I estimate that we will move as well,” she says.

Relations between Israel and Egypt have never been warm, but Oron insists that opportunities exist to expand ties by bolstering bilateral trade and development.

“We want to bring subjects back to the table that were relevant between Israel and Egypt in the past, like water and agriculture. On desalination, as Egypt grows, it will need more quality water.”

Israel, a world leader in desalination, has been offering Egypt deals on water for 20 years, but Cairo has never shown much interest. Oron says Ethiopia’s construction of the contentious Nile Dam, which could cut the flow of water into Egypt, may force them to rethink.

“I’m not saying they are banging down our door, they are examining the issue, but Egypt will certainly need large amounts of water,” Oron says. “Israel has capabilities, knowledge, and Israelis live in a similarly arid climate. We’re physically close and know how to sell technologies. As ambassador, I’ll be happy to detail this to relevant Egyptian government officials as well as to Egyptian commercial concerns.”

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile river in the Benishangul-Gumuz region of Ethiopia, on July 12, 2020. (Maxar Technologies via AP)

To Oron, diplomacy is all about identifying needs and making sure you are “playing on the correct field with every country.”

“I could have talked up Israel’s high-tech sector, but an analysis of Egypt’s needs and the subjects that the Egyptian public is dealing with [shows] that it’s water, agriculture, quality domestic food production, so they don’t need to be dependent of food imports. So all the Israeli firms dealing with food-tech, water, nutrition, savings in the water sector, these are things we are trying to advance.”

Another major area of potential cooperation between the countries is energy. Both countries are party to the year-old EastMed Gas Forum, which also includes Greece, Cyprus, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.

The EMGF embodies, more than anything, the geopolitical change of the region. With the exception of Italy, Egypt is the only country in the Mediterranean basin with two Liquefied Natural Gas facilities (LNG). Until recently, the plants were working at low capacity, about 30 percent, but that number has ramped up since 2018, around the same time that Israel signed a gas export deal with Egypt. Egypt exports the gas to Europe, which has become a significant source of revenue for them.

Amira Oron, left, and Egyptian Energy Minister Tarek el-Molla

“At the bilateral level, this area produces plenty of activity for us,” says Oron. “There is an excellent personal connection between our Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz and the Egyptian Energy Minister Tarek el-Molla. Egypt sees Israel as an important factor in the region and is also closely watching the talks with Lebanon over the maritime exclusive economic zone.”

Oron’s time in Turkey, during which she oversaw Israeli diplomacy during an especially complex period of downgraded ties until 2016, gives her a unique view of the region, especially regarding the undersea gas reserves, which have been a source of recent tensions between Ankara and Cairo.

Asked about how Turkey’s exclusion from the EMGF affects Jerusalem’s ties with Ankara, she says that the relationship is important, though challenged by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s “provocations.”

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks with an image of the Turkish drilling ship Fatih in the background, in Istanbul, August 21, 2020. (Turkish Presidency via AP, Pool)

Recently, though, Erdogan appears to have a change of heart, saying publicly late last month that he wanted to improve ties with Israel.

To Oron, the about-face is a sign of Turkish distress over being isolated politically. She notes the situation is a repeat of 2015, when Turkey accidentally shot down a Russian jet, and tried to patch things up by upgrading negotiations with Israel on a gas pipeline, a project that Oron says has since been taken off the table.

At the time “then-US vice president Joe Biden pushed for talks between Israel and Turkey,” she says. “Fast forward five years, the Turks are once again secluded. They have a lot of conflicts and arguments with many countries in the Mediterranean basin.”

‘Rethinking how they relate to Israel’

A diplomat through and through, Oron navigates the conversation carefully, making judicious use of inoffensive jargon, but one can still read her criticism of Turkey and overt affection toward Egypt between the lines. That affection runs deeper than diplomacy, and is in fact part of her family history.

“My family story is rooted in Egypt. I really appreciate this country and the Egyptians know it,” she says.

Oron’s grandfather, a Jerusalemite named Benjamin, was an only child and was sent by his mother to Argentina sometime early in the 20th century to avoid being drafted into a foreign military.

Upon his return to the region, which was then under British rule, Benjamin stopped off in Alexandria, Egypt, and wound up staying there for several years with an aunt.

Photo shows Stanley Beach in Alexandria, Egypt, at the same site of a 1933 photograph, foreground, August 10, 2019. (Maya Alleruzzo/AP)

It was in the Egyptian port city that he met Oron’s grandmother, Levana, a Jewish woman who had come to the city to escape anti-Semitism in her native Sarajevo.

They started a family, had daughters and lived there for 6 or 7 years until they immigrated to Israel.

“Egypt is a millennia-old civilization with a rich history. We, the Jews, have a part in the story of Egypt. We left Egypt, we came back. My family went back and forth from there to Jerusalem,” she says, referring to it as her family’s “own exodus from Egypt.”

Ambassador Amira Oron at the Maimonides synagogue in Cairo, Egypt. (Courtesy: Amira Oron)

She speaks glowingly of Alexandria, Egypt’s second-largest city, saying her aunts would often talk about how cosmopolitan it was, how nice it was to be there.

“It was a refuge for my grandfather and grandmother. Each of them escaped from somewhere else,” she says.

But she also says history is the reason Egyptians have long been uncomfortable with the idea of warm ties with Israel of the type seen in the United Arab Emirates.

“They are conscious of the wars between the countries, from the past. Since Egypt is seen as the leader of the Arab world, the Palestinian issue is a significant part of the country’s foreign policy. Egypt cannot detach itself from its commitment on this issue. It has existed with them, not since 1977 but from the moment the PLO was established in 1965.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (C) is greeted upon his arrival at the Arab League headquarters in the Egyptian capital Cairo, to discuss the latest developments in the Palestinian territories on April 21, 2019. (MOHAMED EL-SHAHED / AFP)

“All due respect to Arab states, but Egypt is the leader of the Arab world and as such it interprets its commitment to the Palestinians as different,” she adds.

Oron says that even if Egypt won’t foster warm relations with Israelis, as the UAE and Morocco have done, they still supported both normalization accords, though it needed to be balanced with a nod to the Palestinians.

“The Egyptians welcomed the development, but at the same time they sent Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry to visit Ramallah and Sissi invited Mahmoud Abbas to Cairo and told him that he is committed to the Palestinian issue,” she says. “Egypt is adjacent to Gaza. The Palestinians are on their border. The Egyptian intelligence delegations go back and forth, trying to appease Hamas, prevent escalation. Just as Jordan cannot break away from the Palestinian issue, neither can Egypt.”

The country has had an ingrained anti-normalization sentiment, Oron contends, noting that trade unions in the country still adhere to a 1977 decision to not have any cultural normalization with Israel.

An Egyptian protester holds an anti-Israel slogan near the Israeli embassy in Cairo, Egypt, Sunday, Aug. 21, 2011. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

And she points to the backlash suffered by Egyptian singer Mohamed Ramadan, who was harshly denounced and threatened with a boycott after being photographed in the UAE with Israeli pop star Omer Adam.

But she also sees changes afoot.

“The Arab world is shifting their approach to Israel and they realize that Turkey and Iran are the ones challenging the Arab world,” she says. “In Egypt as well, they are rethinking how they relate to Israel. I see this change in social media and not just from the regime.”

She contends that anti-Israel incitement on TV and other forms of media, while harsh, are a thing of the past.

“I see more statements about Jewish history, and gratitude over the fact that Jews were part of the historical and cultural fabric of Egypt. Egyptian President Sissi resolved to repair the thousand-year-old Jewish cemetery in the Bassatine neighborhood,” she says of a US-funded project to restore the ancient Jewish cemetery in Cairo, which has sat in disrepair for decades. “A year ago, we saw the renovation of the Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue in Alexandria, with a financial investment by the Egyptian government. These are things worthy of gratitude and appreciation.”

Guests visit the newly renovated Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue in the northwestern Egyptian city of Alexandria on January 10, 2020, on the day of its inauguration. (Khaled DESOUKI / AFP)

But asked about ongoing hatred toward Israel on social media and in the popular consciousness, she admits that efforts to upgrade how Israel is viewed remains a work in progress.

“There are anti-Israel statements, there’s is suspicion, unfortunately. On the other hand, on social media, we also see a desire to recognize that Judaism was part of Egypt. We are of the opinion that we must be transparent, show the sides of Israel that can be shown, send a message of good neighborliness, convey to them our desire to help, prevent dangers to Israel and Egypt. To work for cooperation on the security front, military.”

On the other side of the equation, Israelis have been more than happy to embrace Egypt, at least as tourists. According to Oron, 300,000 Israelis visited Egypt in 2019, most of them sun-worshippers visiting the Sinai Peninsula’s sandy beaches. Others went to Cairo in tour groups.

Israelis enjoy a holiday on the beach of Paradis Sweir, a desert resort located on the Red Sea shore, South Sinai, Egypt, during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, October 15, 2016. (Johanna Geron/Flash90)

“This came at the end of a very difficult decade for Egypt, which they today have pulled themselves out of. The decade saw political changes, instability, insecurity and 2019 symbolized the return of tourists to 2010 levels. But then COVID-19 stopped everything,” she says.

“In Israel, we are looking at what can be done, as there is a permanent travel alert to Sinai due to fears regarding terror groups identified with the Islamic State, but as mentioned, after a difficult period, Egypt is no longer at the point where it was during the last 10 years,” she adds. “Security agencies have stabilized the country and you don’t see terror attacks, and they also hope there will be increased demand for tourism.”

In this November 7, 2015 file photo, a tourist swims in the Red Sea, at Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. (AP Photo/Thomas Hartwell, File)

She notes that before the coronavirus pandemic hit, Israel had been trying to push direct flights to Sharm al-Sheikh, which she describes as a “lovely resort town  … with British infrastructure, security and air defense forces present,” a nod to the 2015 downing of a Russian airliner that had taken off from the city.

“We had discussions in the past about marketing tourist packages combining Egypt, Jordan and Israel, with archaeology, ancient civilizations, resorts. With the fresh winds blowing in the region, perhaps it is time to get back to it.”

‘Building peace, centimeter by centimeter’

Oron refuses to confirm a recent report in Israel Hayom about plans for an upcoming meeting between Netanyahu and Sissi. But she says Jerusalem is working toward clinching a possible Netanyahu visit to Cairo soon for such a sit-down.

“Netanyahu and Sissi met at the UN General Assembly in September 2018 and were pictured as laughing together,” she says. “As for a meeting, it remains to be seen.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York on September 27, 2018. (Avi Ohayon / PMO)

Are Egyptians interested in the domestic political situation in Israel?

“There are some reports about the political mess in Israel, but nothing that stands out. The daily newspaper Al-Dostor has a weekly section called ‘Mahatat Tel-Aviv’, meaning ‘Tel-Aviv Station.’ They cover Israeli issues and politics. All the coalition building in Israel is foreign to them, they don’t know it and don’t understand it. By and large, since Sissi came to power, there has been a great deal of trust between Netanyahu and him. There was with [Hosni] Mubarak too. There is coordination and stability between Netanyahu and Sissi, and that is beneficial to the entire region.”

“To be honest, the press in Egypt is much busier with Turkey and Iran and [figuring out] what the relationship will be with Biden, because what happened to Egypt with [Barack] Obama left a bad taste. They worry, since there was a rift when Obama told Mubarak, at the height of the [2011] protests in Egypt to ‘go home.’ And afterward Obama wouldn’t release military aid to them. They remember this and worry about it. For now they are telegraphing that ties between Washington and Cairo will be good and stable.”

Children wave Egyptian national flags as they hang out a car window in Tahrir Square, which was the focal point of the Jan. 25, 2011 Egyptian uprising that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak, in Cairo, Egypt, March 28, 2018. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

Do you still start your day by opening the newspaper, in Arabic? Or have you switched to reading news online?

“If I don’t have the Egyptian print newspapers on the table in the morning, I can’t start my day. I would rather not say which papers I read, so as not to offend the others, but I read all the important ones, every day. I absolutely still need it in print, still want to turn the pages. I have a communications officer at the embassy, ​​who goes through the prominent news sites and prepares summaries for me. The Egyptian press is very dynamic, anyone who wants to serve in Cairo needs to read and take an interest in a variety of news items. ”

The book “The Yacoubian Building” by Egyptian writer Alaa Al-Aswany, which was translated into Hebrew against his wishes, was nonetheless a big hit in Israel. Since Israelis cannot visit Cairo due to coronavirus restrictions, do you have any other recommendations of great Egyptian authors?

A camel guide wears a surgical mask while pulling his camel at the Giza Pyramids in Giza, Egypt, July 1, 2020. (Hamada Elrasam/AP)

“First and foremost, any book by the Nobel Literature laureate Naguib Mahfouz. He is famous in Israel. I also recommend contemporary writer Youssef Ziedan, whose book ‘Azazeel’ has been translated into Hebrew [and English]. It is the story of a Coptic monk who in the 5th century flees from Egypt to Syria and his experiences. A great book. By the way, there is an Egyptian researcher at the Israeli Academic Center in Cairo who translates non-fiction books from Hebrew to Arabic. For instance, he translated Jacky Hugi’s ‘Arabian Nights.Com’ from Hebrew to Arabic.”

Years ago you told me that serving as ambassador to Egypt was your life’s goal. How long have you dreamed of this?

“It’s true. The roles of ambassadors in the world are important, and no offense to the others but there are two — the ambassador to Egypt and the ambassador to Jordan — who get up every morning and build peace day by day, centimeter by centimeter. This is a blessed mission, peace.”

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