JERUSALEM—Consigned to the diplomatic shadows in Cairo for the past two years as Israel’s ambassador to Egypt, Haim Koren splashed across the Egyptian media this week after an Egyptian parliamentarian invited him to dinner.
Defying the Egyptian parliament’s call for banning of normalization of relations with the Jewish state, the lawmaker, Tawfik Okasha, also suggested that Koren serve as mediator on one of Egypt’s most vexed problems—a dam being built by Ethiopia that threatens to reduce Egypt’s share of the Nile’s water.
If Okasha was attempting to gain the public’s attention and tweak the nose of the Cairo establishment, he succeeded. His move was condemned in the media and two lawmakers demanded that he be ejected from parliament for “disrespect for the blood of Egyptian and Arab martyrs.” Addressing the question of normalization, Okasha noted that Egypt’s security agencies provide close protection for Israeli officials in Egypt. “The safeguarding of the Israeli ambassador is 15 times better than that of any other ambassador in Egypt. Isn’t the presence of an Israeli ambassador a result of Israel and Egypt’s mutual recognition of each other?”
Since the destruction of Israel’s embassy in Cairo in 2011 by a raging mob, Israel has kept a very low profile in Egypt. The embassy was reopened two years ago but because of inability to locate suitable premises—whether for security or political reasons—it has been operating out of the home of the ambassador. The ambassador himself was almost totally ignored by the Egyptian media.
Okasha is the owner of the al-Faraeen television channel in Cairo and is himself co-host to a popular talk show, Egypt Today. He has been described in the New York Times as “Egypt’s Glenn Beck” for “his embrace of conspiratorial thinking and hatred of political Islam.” On the show last week, he astonished viewers by saying that Israeli mediation is the key to resolving the dispute with Ethiopia over the dam. “I have personally invited the Israeli ambassador to Cairo, Haim Koren, to a dinner at my house next week to discuss the Nile dispute and other important issues.” Taunting Egyptian journalists, he said “I will take a photo with him and give it to you so you can publish it.”
True to his word, he invited Koren to dinner Wednesday and the ambassador showed up. Israel Radio said that the dinner lasted three hours during which time host and guest discussed numerous subjects. Egyptian media, which picked up on the story, said the subjects included the Nile issue and the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
The Israeli embassy in Cairo reported on the meeting on its Facebook page Thursday. “Yesterday, Ambassador Koren met with Dr. Tawfik Okasha. The meeting lasted more than three hours and included a dinner. It was a very good meeting and the two parties agreed to continue collaborating in the future.” A poll showed that 90 percent of Egyptians objected to Okasha’s invitation to the ambassador.
The Egyptian media, having been reminded of the ambassador’s presence in Cairo, requested interviews. He met with journalists, including a reporter for Al Ahram, Tuesday at his residence. Apart from expressing his love for the Egyptian people and respect for President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the meeting produced little noteworthy news. However, the willingness of Egyptian journalists to meet with him, an act of presumptive “normalization,” was itself news.
Koren did remind the journalists of technological assistance Israel has provided Egypt, particularly in agriculture, and called for extension of such relations to the cultural and economic spheres. He noted that it is virtually a ritual in Israel to watch Egyptian movies on television on Friday afternoons. “We are friends, not enemies,” he said.