CAIRO, Egypt -- In a colossal museum here, Egyptians relive the desert war that destroyed "the myth" of Israel's invincibility on the battlefield 25 years ago today.
Miniature tanks roll stealthily across man-made bridges that span a replica of the Suez Canal. Toy-like planes zip along guy wires in a replay of Egypt's startling attack on Oct. 6, 1973. It was Yom Kippur, the most solemn holy day for Jews, when Israel virtually shuts down.
Egyptians visiting the October war museum watch grainy film footage of Israeli prisoners of war with the Egyptian flag flying over the Sinai Desert, territory that had been occupied by Israel after its victory in the 1967 Middle East war. They walk through a display of booty captured during the October war -- Israeli tanks, howitzers, even a jagged scrap of an Israeli fighter plane.
They follow every step on "the road to victory" except for the final outcome -- Israel's eventual about-face and military rally that paralyzed the Egyptian army, retook the Sinai and resulted in a cease-fire.
Remembered as victory
For many Egyptians, the October war is remembered only as a moment of victory and vindication, and a step on the road to peace that ultimately enabled Egypt to reclaim all of Sinai.
"If there wasn't the October war, Israel would never have talked about something called peace," says Mohammed Abdel Al as he bags pomegranates at a fruit stall in Cairo. "It changed the history of Israel, this whole myth that it can't be defeated."
But it has been a rocky peace. Israeli-Egyptian relations, ranging from euphoria to disdain, have mirrored the mercurial character of Middle East politics.
Israel's first peace treaty with a former Arab enemy was signed in March 1979, by Anwar el Sadat, the Egyptian leader who launched the 1973 war. The Camp David accords gained Egypt $2.2 billion a year in aid from the United States and the return of the Sinai. But it also earned Egypt the immediate enmity of the Arab states, which stripped Egypt of its membership in the Arab League.
Sadat envisioned Camp David as a prelude to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace. But he was assassinated by Islamic extremists in 1981 on the anniversary of the October war.
Mohammed Salmawy, a well-known Egyptian journalist, remembers the heady early days of peace when fellow Egyptians chanted "Long live [Menachem] Begin" during the Israeli prime minister's visit to Cairo in 1979.
Merchants in Cairo's teeming bazaar refused to take money from Israeli guests, Salmawy recalls. "But gradually, and especially under this [Israeli] government, things have become very sour."
Salmawy, chief editor of the French-language al-Ahram Hebdo, is one of the Egyptian journalists at the center of a flap that illustrates the current relationship.
Last month, the Israeli government issued a report entitled "Anti-Semitism and Holocaust Denial in the Official Egyptian Press." Citing cartoons, newspaper excerpts and magazine passages, Israel charged that anti-Semitic themes "permeate" the official Egyptian media.
A cartoon depicted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a Nazi uniform. Zionism was described as a "racist political movement." A magazine excerpt alleged Israeli involvement in a blood-tainting scheme to spread AIDS.
Salmawy calls the Israeli report "politically motivated." He points to its citation of him for this Feb. 2, 1998 passage on the Holocaust: "There are no findings to indicate the existence of mass graves, because the size of the ovens makes it impossible for many Jews to have been killed there."
The Israeli report failed to say, Salmawy says, that he was quoting British historian David Irving in a piece on Holocaust denials.
Egyptian media criticism of the Netanyahu government's intransigence in the Middle East peace process, he says, is political, not racial. "We Arabs do not know anything of this anti-Semitism," Salmawy says. "We are Semites. We are not guilty of the persecution of Jews. The Holocaust, we have to admit, is a Western phenomenon. It is not an Arab phenomenon."
Then why would the Egyptian media liken Israel to Hitler's Nazi regime?
Salmawy suggests that "racist policies" toward the Palestinians and a "belief in the superiority" of the Jewish people reminds one of "the worst excesses of the history of man, one of which was Hitler."
Abdel Moneim Said, the director of the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies and founder of a Cairo peace group, says: "Nobody in Israel or in the West talks about Israel's anti-Semitism." He says Arabs are characterized in Netanyahu's book "A Place Among the Nations" and elsewhere as dirty, aggressive and bloodthirsty.
The Israeli-Egyptian relationship fluctuates with Israeli actions in the region, Said says. The euphoria of peace cooled when Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 and again during the Palestinian uprising, or intifada, a few years later.
Then came a warming period during which, Said says, "Israel gradually became our second trading partner in the Middle East. In terms of official visits, Israel was among the highest."
Since 1996 the momentum for a Mideast peace settlement has stalled, Said says, and tensions are rising again. The results could be seen in a recent movie that portrayed nationalist students at the American University in Cairo burning an Israeli flag. The audience applauded and whistled.
Trade off 10%
Commerce, too, has been affected. Trade between Israel and Egypt has dropped by 10 percent, according to an Israeli diplomat.
Magdi Abu Samra, an Egyptian businessman, has felt the effects firsthand. His Cairo firm, Agroland Group, has been selling Israeli agricultural products in Egypt for 15 years.
When the Egyptian media denounce Israel, he says, "Our competitors use this and start attacking goods of Israel and business people working with Israel."
Dalia Nazme, 28, of Cairo, has visited Israel twice. She was apprehensive initially but her first trip three years ago went so well that she visited a second time. "It was wonderful. We went to Tel Aviv and Eilat. They were very friendly, especially when they knew we were Egyptians."
Nazme doesn't believe she could repeat that experience today. She says the Egyptian government is "putting limits on Egyptians who visit Israel because of the situation right now."
Despite the ups and downs of the past 20 years, says a senior Israeli diplomat, Israeli-Egyptian peace "has weathered all the crises and the problems we have had.
"On the elementary level, there is peace," he says. "It is quiet on the borders. There are routine flights. Israeli ships go through the Suez canal. There is free movement of people and goods. There is an Israeli embassy in Cairo with a flag and the Egyptians are [in Tel Aviv] and in Eilat."
"To get a warm peace it takes years," the diplomat says. "We expected more but if you ask me, I wish we would have such a peace with Syria."
Pub Date: 10/06/98