Israel and the Children of Camp David

Mona Eltahawy

Posted Dec 10, 2007      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Israel and the Children of Camp David

By Mona Eltahawy

A conference was held in Tel Aviv last week celebrating Anwar Sadat’s path to peace of thirty years ago. Mona Eltahawy brought research of the views of the ‘Children of Camp David’- young Egyptians born since the peace between Egypt and Israel, says Mona Eltahawy.

TEL AVIV—Sometimes it helps to catch the peace train in the opposite direction. As the leaders of Israel and Arab countries met in Annapolis last week and left with little more than handshakes and photographs to show for their efforts, I went to Tel Aviv to share with Israelis what young Egyptians thought of them.

I was not the bearer of glad tidings. Although my country, Egypt, and Israel have officially been at peace for nearly 30 years, cold is the kindest way to describe relations between the two countries. That was clear in looking through the list of speakers at the Tel Aviv University conference where I would present my research: I was the only Egyptian who had accepted the invitation (except the ambassador to Tel Aviv, who ultimately sent his deputy instead).

But it felt more real to convey the views of young Egyptians than to hear the latest platitudes from the first peace talks in seven years.

The conference, organized by Egypt expert Dr. Mira Tzoreff, was to mark the 30th anniversary of the surprise visit to Israel by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in November 1977. Making good on a vow to travel to the ends of the earth to prevent the death of any more young Egyptians in wars with Israel—the countries had already fought four by then—Sadat’s visit kick-started peace talks that took place in Camp David, Maryland. They would eventually lead to the first peace treaty between an Arab country and the Jewish state in 1979.

My research asked Egyptians born after that visit to Israel—a generation I call the Children of Camp David—what they thought of Sadat’s peace initiative, whether they themselves would visit Israel and if they had a message to Israelis they wanted me to deliver during my time in Tel Aviv.

I lived in Israel from December 1997 till January 1999, as a Reuters correspondent. I was the first Egyptian to work for a western news agency there, and the first Egyptian many Israelis had met. But that year in Israel created trouble for me to this day, with Egyptian State Security, which tapped my phone in Cairo and had me followed whenever I returned home.

Egyptian authorities discourage visits to Israel. Those of us who do make it there are invited upon our return to Egypt to “drink tea”—State Security parlance for an interrogation. Our countries might be at peace, but visiting Israel taints you with the brush of espionage because as the officer assigned to my case told me, the “enemy” is often busier “recruiting” during times of peace.

His nom de guerre was Omar Sharif, but alas such an alias just encouraged comparisons with the handsome actor that didn’t work to his advantage. My “cup of tea” with him included repeated exclamations that he couldn’t believe my father “had allowed me” to go to Israel, and a paternalistic lecture about how no man in his right mind would want to marry someone like me who traveled so much.

I went to Israel because I wanted to see it for myself. And I remember the illicitness of the most mundane minutiae of my life there: It’s difficult to overestimate the political weight of having an Israeli newspaper on my breakfast table during my first week at a hotel there.

I was born during one war between our countries—1967—and remember the next and very last one in 1973. I wondered how the Children of Camp David, whose generation has never fought a war with Israel, feel about that country?

Not very warmly, is the easy answer. And Palestinian suffering under occupation was the reason.

“Stop turning Palestinian lives into hell. Stop what you do at your checkpoints. Teach your soldiers to have hearts and not to be so cruel,” said a 29-year old woman, who also said the Camp David peace treaty was important because it avoided more war. “Sadat saved my life and gave me safety and gave me a future.

She wanted to tell Israelis to “keep in mind that we can live together and let’s work on what is common between us and stop violence.”

Egyptians are also aware of how their government manipulates sympathy for Palestinians. “I don’t think the current government wants real peace with Israel,” a 21-year-old woman said. “They want to freeze the situation like this so that people would always have an outside enemy, which will make them focus less on local issues such as democratization and corruption.”

A 25-year-old man who described the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel as a “joke” said he “didn’t know many people who don’t believe Israel is a current and constant threat to Egypt’s interests.” He said Egypt should not have a complex relationship with Israel as long as it remained a Zionist state and as long as the Palestinian people lived under occupation. “I’d tell Israelis their right to exist and live in this land can be won by force or by risk and sacrifice. Force is a never-ending cycle of violence, sacrifice is a longish-cycle of violence that will end one day without one side having to finish the other.”

I interviewed 15 young Egyptians from across the political spectrum for the preliminary research I took to Tel Aviv. I plan on expanding my research because I was encouraged by the nuance that my initial interviewees showed. Just as importantly, I was intrigued by their curiosity about Israeli reaction to their sentiments.

So, I am collecting reaction to take back—where doubtless that “cup of tea” awaits.

Mona Eltahawy is an award-winning New York-based journalist and commentator, and an international lecturer on Arab and Muslim issues.

Copyright ©2007 Mona Eltahawy/Agence Global