CAIRO, Egypt — To hear Israeli Ambassador to Egypt Shalom Cohen tell it, a few Egyptian students dropped by his house a couple of weeks ago to chat about research they were conducting.
Perhaps in an effort to flatter their host, perhaps speaking honestly, the students told Cohen that he was the most popular ambassador ever to come to Egypt from the Jewish state.
Cohen was thrilled — but not for the reason you’d think.
"This is exactly my fulfillment," he said, "not to be the most popular ambassador, but knowing that the Egyptian people know that there is an Israeli ambassador in town!"
Indeed, Cohen occupies a curious space in Egypt’s diplomatic community. His culturally imposed isolation has obliged him to spend much of his five-year tenure in Cairo waving a proverbial "I am here!" sign.
The Egyptian press syndicate forbids its members from speaking with the Israeli diplomatic corps, although those who don't belong to the syndicate rarely choose to either, with one-sided accounts of hot-button issues appearing regularly in the press. In fact, a media firestorm erupted earlier this year, when Hala Mustafa, the editor of the newspaper Democracy Review, invited Cohen to break the Ramadan fast with her. Mustafa, a member of the syndicate, is now facing disciplinary action after weeks of intense media criticism aimed her way.
With no press about him, it's no surprise that many Egyptians don’t know the first thing about Cohen. What they don't know may, indeed, shock them.
Among the many incongruities of this fiercely defensive Israeli envoy is that he draws inspiration from one of modern Egypt's — and the Arab world's — most celebrated political figures.
On Nov. 19, 1977, President Anwar Sadat of Egypt shook the region by speaking to the Israeli Knesset.
“I have not come to you to seek a partial peace,” Sadat said in his address, “namely to terminate the state of belligerency at this stage and put off the entire problem to a subsequent stage. This is not the radical solution that would steer us to permanent peace.”
In fact, Cohen was compelled to join the Israeli government after hearing Sadat’s address. He was in Paris at the time, studying medicine, but he dropped out to join the peace effort when he heard the Egyptian president’s message.
“Then I understood that this is what I want to do,” he said, “I wanted to spend my coming years to be there and to help to develop this beautiful process of peace between Israel and Arabs, where I felt that I can contribute.”
Cohen said that Israel and Egypt have yet to see the fulfillment of Sadat’s message. The two countries, he believes, have only achieved a partial peace.
At the heart of the dilemma is that while they have never enjoyed better relations at the strategic political level, the countries persist in a state of a cultural cold war.
A lot of Egyptians, he said, "don’t really know that we have peace with Israel."
"Most of them never learn about the peace process,” he continued. "Most of them never learn about this visit of Sadat in Jerusalem. They learn about the war of October. I used to say, 'they know everything about October wars; they know nothing about November visit.'"
Indeed, the 1973 war looms large in Egyptian history and is observed as a national holiday, complete with celebrations and parades.
The anniversary of Sadat’s Knesset speech, and the September anniversary of the Camp David accords, usually receive scant attention, and this year was no different.
While few artists cross the broad border between the two countries, and the exchange of tourists has been disappointing, cooperation at the top levels of government remains strong.
President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel meet often. Earlier this year, Egypt allowed two Israeli submarines to pass through the Suez Canal, ratcheting up military pressure on Iran. During Israel’s January Cast Lead operation in Gaza, Egypt stunned the Arab world by generally maintaining a blockade that prevented many humanitarian goods from entering the strip.
And for Cohen, pushing Sadat’s message of total peace remains the central effort of his tenure.
Cohen, himself, is a sort of bridge between the two worlds. A Tunisian Jew, Cohen grew up in North Africa. He has managed to endear himself to scores of Egyptians through his fluent Arabic, making Israel, which can seem so distant to Egyptians, a little more accessible.
He makes a point of breaking through the media ban and the layers of security around him by spending considerable time in public, shopping and dining, meeting people and trying, in his small way, to build on Sadat’s vision of total peace.
Cohen, who credits the Egyptian government for helping to strengthen bilateral ties politically, says the Mubarak regime also bears blame for the strained cultural relations between the two countries.
“They are using this anti-normalization as a tool to influence Israel,” Cohen said. “Using this anti-normalization as a tool, in my view, is wrong.”
Cool relations between the two countries at the street level may also fulfill a domestic political need for the government. With strong Islamist factions in the country, the government has been forced to bend in a more conservative direction. Persuading the population that it’s not pushing a pro-Israel agenda, therefore, isn’t such a bad thing for the government.
Fighting through the politics, though, that has become the cause of Cohen’s life.