He still trembles when he thinks about that terrible night in the Israeli embassy in Cairo, when an enraged mob broke into the building to take vengeance on the Israeli representatives.
“We were one step away from disaster.” Only the intervention of U.S. President Barack Obama, who personally contacted the heads of the revolution and demanded the immediate dispatch of security forces to rescue the Israelis, brought the Egyptian commandos, who stopped the rioters, who had already penetrated the Israeli embassy with murder in their eyes.
Five years later, the former ambassador to Egypt (2009-2011), Yitzchak Levanon, has agreed to break his silence and recount those difficult moments. With his feelings about that traumatic experience, and the troubled relations between the two countries in general, Levanon today is not optimistic. He agreed to be interviewed by Carmel Dangor for the IDF magazine Bamahane, and with their generous permission, we present here the principal comments of one who was there, and returned safely, b’chasdei Shamayim:
He doesn’t forget the moments of departure, when the Israel Air Force planes landed in a remote corner of the Cairo military air base, and he, the ambassador, along with other Israeli embassy personnel, stood emotionally waiting to board the planes that would take them out of the inferno of hatred, homeward.
Apologetically, the senior officials of the Egyptian government shook his hand. He looked directly into the eyes of each one of them, as they mumbled their apologies. He gave the same reply to each one: “Too late.”
“I take my leave of them all,” he says. “They said they were sorry, but I was angry.”
“I was angry, because they could have done something, that it took a telephone call from the most powerful man in the free world to stop all this.”
Bamahane notes that these are days of the revolution in Egypt. The supreme military council took the reins of power six months before from President Hosni Mubarak. In every alleyway in Cairo the hard hand of the minister of defense Muhmad Tantawi. A month before, thousands of demonstrators broke into the Israeli embassy building in Cairo.
“The atmosphere in the street heated up during those days, and the voices against Israel, which were negative in any case, grew stronger,” recalls Levanon. “But no one imagined that such a thing could happen. A few hours before, there had been a huge demonstration in Freedom Square that was put down by the security forces. The military drove off the demonstrators; then they turned toward us. The situation snowballed very quickly: The demonstrators brought hammers from home and other crude weapons. Things got out of control. They attacked us from every direction. They penetrated the building from the roof, through windows; entered the first floor and began to destroy everything in their path. But they wanted to get to the center of the embassy. I knew that if they got in, they would be vengeful, I didn’t expect they would be nice to us. There was nothing to stop them from carrying out a lynch,” remembers Levanon.
“During those entire 13 hours I received a cold shoulder from the Egyptian security forces. The army could have stopped the mob in a second. Why didn’t they? Why did the security forces of the country, which had the responsibility to protect us, fail to do so?” he asks.
“This is the million-dollar question, and to this day, I have no answer.”
During those hours, Levanon was in his home in Cairo. Apparently, the question which continues to trouble him to this day also troubled many others in the civilian and military echelons during those tense hours.
“When I spoke by phone with the situation room that was opened in Yerushalayim, in the presence of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and senior members of the government and IDF, I shouted like I never did before in my life,” says Levanon. “I feared for my people in Cairo. It was an absurd situation, with terrible rage that rampaged through the building, and the police and army stood aside and did nothing.”
“The whole time, they told me on the phone, ‘Don’t worry, the Egyptian commandos are on the way.’ No such thing. I called Tantawi again and again, but he didn’t answer. Was it deliberate? I don’t know.
“The madness ended only after Obama picked up the telephone.”
The plane which took Levanon and his staff out of Egypt was the very same one that carried Anwar Sadat on his historic visit to Yerushalayim in November 1977.
“It is impossible not to sense the irony, but things happen. But it was a small curiosity that did not assuage my anger at the time. I didn’t think that that’s how my term in Egypt would end. Only when the wheels of the plane touched down at Ben Gurion airport did I feel relieved,” he tells us.
“The prime minister called me and said: “Get some rest the next two or three days, and then go back to Egypt.” I returned for a last visit. I didn’t even go past the embassy building. Since then, I have not gone back. I hope that one day we can discover more details about that night. Five years later, I still feel seared by the experience.”
Levanon explains that the “cold peace” with Egypt is due to the Palestinians. “As long as the Palestinians are not granted independence, they consider that Israel has not fulfilled the conditions of the Camp David Accords. The Egyptians perceive on the part which affects the Palestinians. I think that today the peace agreement can be compared to a beautiful oil painting from the time of Sadat. They removed the painting and left just the frame. Put your hand in — there’s nothing. It is no more than a piece of paper. Our relations with them are like a thin sheet of ice. The moment it’s broken, you will find yourself in freezing water.”
“Nevertheless, in the current situation, neither side is interested in cracking the ice and breaking the status quo, however cold, that has been in place over years.
“El-Sisi understands that the peace treaty with Israel is an Egyptian interest, no less than an Israeli interest. What is the alternative? War? War would ruin Egypt.
“They have so many problems—poverty, ignorance, corruption—what do they want, to add Bibi?”
On the other hand, el-Sisi faces a dilemma. Egyptian policy has been that until the Palestinian issue is resolved, there can be no true normalization with Israel. “It is hard for me to believe that there will be any normalization of relations with Egypt until Israel answers that demand.”
According to Levanon, relations with Israel is rated low on the order of priorities of the average Egyptian citizen. “They are afraid of us, are jealous of us. They are fed anti-Israel propaganda. The Muslim Brotherhood took control of all the professional organizations and gave the order: No contact with Israel. Therefore, they all boycott Israel, and anyone who says anything about it, even shows curiosity about Israel, is thrown out.
“But,” Levanon quickly adds, “I believe that we don’t know how to talk with them. We don’t have the right mentality. A country like Egypt, with 5,000 years of history, has codes of its own. And we approach them patronizingly, as if to say, “Israel knows better.’”
Levanon believes that the difficulty with Egypt is but one of a series of diplomatic failures. “Israel must improve its conduct in the international sphere. The leadership are unaware of the power of diplomacy. No one in the government really esteems the diplomats, and they don’t give them sufficient room for maneuver. It’s a longstanding problem. We are more inclined to stress security matters, and that’s not a strategy. The brutal security response is very unwelcome in the world. We have to do something different. We don’t understand that the diplomatic approach is what wins the battle.’
Levanon’s own perspective as a diplomat in Cairo did not, in any case, enable him to foresee the rapid fall from power of Mubarak, as he himself admits.
“We knew that the government was weakening, that there were problems, but we didn’t think it was in danger. Neither did the Israeli intelligence agencies predict the coming explosion. They thought the government was so strong, nothing would really change.
“I don’t blame them. That was the everybody’s view. Mubarak was so strong, he had almost a million and a half defense and security forces. Even the Egyptian journalists said, “This is not Tunisia [where the Arab Spring started].”
In spite of this, Levanon tells Bamahane that even before the protests began, the picture began to change in his eyes.
“On Thursday, the day before the real uprising started, I sent a cable to Israel. I wrote that while Egypt is not Tunisia, the spirit of Tunisia is in the streets, and dramatic developments can be expected. All of my colleagues in the embassy that I had become unhinged. But after 30 years [of Mubarak] the genie has to come out of the bottle.
“And it’s only a matter of time. They have sucked the blood of the people. I remember that one of the Egyptian workers in the embassy arrived upset one day. “Why is it,” he asked, ‘that when I ride the metro to work, they stop me at least five times? This is my country!’”
Even after the mass protests began, he argues, things could have turned out differently. “The demands of the people who went into the streets on January 25 were justified, just to get the dictatorship off their necks. No more than that. If Mubarak had understood that on that day, he would have ordered the police not to confront the demonstrators, and he would have fired his interior minister, who was responsible for oppressing the people—nothing would have happened. The dictatorship would not have toppled. But Mubarak did not leave his ivory tower. Only on Friday, when the police collapsed and thousands escaped from prison, all the demands were reduced to one: ‘Resign!’”
Five years later, the streets are empty of demonstrators, and three weeks after the Egyptian ambassador was returned to Tel Aviv, after four years without one, it is possible to think that normalization of relations are close. But Levanon doesn’t think so:
“Like it or not, el-Sisi is only one man. He has no party behind him. He relies on his public popularity. If, in the future, he is not able to give the people what they want, they will oust him.
“It is very good and nice that we have good relations with him. But what will happen in the next elections? Egypt has no party that has the capacity to create another leader like him.”
El-Sisi is the first military leader to take off the uniform in order to occupy the presidential palace. “In Egypt, since the 1950s, every military figure who has governed—Nasser, Sadat, Mubarak, el-Sisi—came from the military. “That’s one of the causes of the revolution, and also the U.S., which pressured Egypt to choose a civilian president. Then we got Morsi.”
One of the causes of the fall of Morsi, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, in the uprising of 2013, Levanon attributes to the kind of Islamic state they wanted, and the kind of country the people wanted to live in.
“The Egyptian people don’t want to be another Iran, with sharia law. But it’s more complicated than that. It’s impossible to speak for 90 million people, 45 percent of whom are illiterate, living in remote villages, not even aware of the problems in the rest of the country. They weren’t seen in Cairo until the final days of the demonstrations, if at all.”
“There’s about 20 or 30 million, who read newspapers, follow the news and electronic media. They are the backbone of the Egypt. They are the ones who can bring change.
“Mubarak told me during one of our meetings: ‘You think it’s easy to rule over 90 million people?’ I understand him. If we look at Egypt with Israeli eyes, it doesn’t look good. But Egypt is Egypt. The logic is different.
“With us, 2 plus 2 equals 4. In the Middle East, it’s optional. Maybe it equals 4, maybe 7. Arab leaders who despised one another, suddenly get together after a few years. We Israelis don’t understand how it works. But that’s the way it is in the Middle East. The only law is, there isn’t any logic.”