CAIRO, Egypt -- It has been 18 years since Camp David, and 20 years since President Anwar el Sadat of Egypt visited Jerusalem. But in the Egyptian press, Arab political-cartoon images of Israel remain almost as negative as they did decades ago -- an amalgam of hook-nosed, long-bearded thugs worse than the Nazis; wily plotters in an international Jewish quest for domination; and unclothed, immoral women bent on corrupting the unaware.

Such portrayals have long infuriated Israeli officials and have undoubtedly done much to keep Israeli and American hard-liners in business.

But the crudeness of the images reflects a hard reality: that many Arabs harbors deep suspicions and prejudices toward Israel and the quest for wider peace.

Hosni Mubarak, who as president of Egypt since 1981 has known only peace with Israel, told an interviewer recently, "Don't ask us to 'educate' our people for peace with Israel -- they'll tell us to go to hell!"

Some of that sentiment was on display last week in an episode involving an Israeli-American cartoonist, Ranan Lurie. Lurie, who lives in the United States, had begun to draw a daily cartoon for Egypt's leading newspaper, but he became the target of a rival publication and fellow cartoonists who saw his service in the Israeli Army 30 years ago as just cause for his ouster.

Folding under pressure

Bowing to the pressure, the newspaper, Al Ahram, announced that publication of Lurie's cartoons would be suspended "until allegations related to his participation in anti-Arab warfare have been verified."

That Al Ahram proved unwilling to stick by its guns probably had much to do with the current depth of Arab disenchantment toward Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's conservative government.

But whether relations have been on the wax or wane, hostility or at least suspicion toward Israel has remained a constant of Arab popular culture. The attitude is seen in books and magazines and on television, but it is most visible year after year in political cartoons.

There is Israel as snake, poised to gobble up Al Aksa Mosque in Jerusalem. There is Israel as war criminal, its Star of David transfigured into a swastika, its brutality toward Arabs shown as tantamount to the Holocaust.

When other aspects of Israeli society are depicted at all, they tend to be shown as similarly reprehensible. Rose al-Youssef, one of Egypt's most popular magazines and one of the most fiercely anti-Israel, ran a cover story on Israeli tourism last week featuring a scantily clad woman and the headline: "Naked Israelis in Sinai."


Mubarak has produced examples of his own to argue that the Israeli press is often equally unflattering.

He has also claimed that even though he is Egypt's leader, he cannot exert influence over the Egyptian press.

In fact, he can and does; but like Yasser Arafat and King Hussein of Jordan, the two other Arab leaders who have made peace with Israel, Mubarak knows well the risks of bucking public opinion.

By allowing venting of Arab hostility toward Israel, Mubarak and his colleagues may believe that they redirect some of the dissent that they themselves might otherwise have to contend with. They may also see advantage in reminding the Israelis that in the spectrum of Arab opinion, they are already of the more progressive bent.

Two-sided prejudice

A greater mixing between societies might help to overcome the most outrageous prejudices on both sides. Only 12,000 Egyptians traveled to Israel last year -- about one in 6,000. And while 150,000 Israelis made the reverse journey, most ventured only to resorts on the Red Sea.

One reason so few Egyptians make the trip is that nearly all of the country's professional organizations still bar their members from joining in the normalization of ties with Israel, a rule viewed as a caution against even setting foot there.

It is not surprising that one of those organizations is the journalists' syndicate, whose bylaws reflect the same anti-Israeli line that its members regularly commit to print.

Pub Date: 4/20/97

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