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For Israeli envoy, dislike goes with the turf

For Shalom Cohen, being Israeli ambassador to Egypt is not a popularity contest.

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.