What Egypt's Elite Think About Israel and Obama
At a private dinner party of Egyptian power brokers and a few American journalists in advance of Barack Obama's Cairo speech, honest disagreements and agreements over Israel's lobbying influence and the president's mandate flowed.
“Don’t interrupt me! Don’t interrupt me!” the Egyptian executive scolded the American anchorman.
The conversation had gotten impassioned at industrialist Shafik Gabr’s dinner table, where the A-list of Egypt’s business community, and a few American journalists, gathered to hash over the troubles of the Middle East on the eve of President Barack Obama’s speech today at Cairo University. Inevitably the talk turned to the United States’ “biased support for Israel,” as clothing manufacturer Galal Zorba put it, and the allegedly disproportionate influence of the Israel lobby on U.S. foreign policy, and just what Obama would say and do about it.
“That has always been the problem and still is. The feeling is that the United States has not been fair,” Zorba declared during the disquisition that Fox Business Network anchor Brian Sullivan had attempted to interrupt—a tour de horizon encompassing everything from Israeli’s legitimate need for security (he claims a friendship with former prime minister Ehud Olmert) and the martyrdom of Egyptian president Anwar el Sadat, who was assassinated by Islamic radicals two years after he signed a peace accord with Menachem Begin in 1979, and also of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish hardliner in 1995.
“We need to get on with our lives. We got trapped in these sick ideas of fundamentalism that have been inflicted on us and totally destroyed the Egyptian culture.”
“First of all, I was agreeing with you,” Sullivan said when Zorba finished. “What I was objecting to is the notion that the United States has broad support for Israel. The United States is a country of 300 million people…I think many Americans, if you ask them, would be just as frustrated with this support as people here—because they feel that it’s too expensive and, to be honest with you, it’s not something that they’re concerned about. Remember, Judaism is a fairly small percentage of the American population. So I don’t think there’s a broad citizen support….I think most Americans are probably just tired of it and wish it would be resolved. Americans like resolutions.”
Sullivan’s Fox News colleague, Liz Peek—the wife of Jeffrey M. Peek, chief executive of the banking behemoth (and federal bailout beneficiary) CIT Group—seemed to agree. “I think more troubling,” Peek lamented, “is that it’s an issue that cannot even be discussed.”
Maybe, maybe not. But it can certainly be discussed in Cairo, at a massively marbled mansion that rises from a lushly landscaped oasis behind high stucco walls on a dusty hilltop overlooking the city—a swatch of Palm Beach transplanted to the desert. And the folks from Fox were on a roll.
“One of the things the world doesn’t understand,” Sullivan remarked, “is that we hear about this landslide election [of Obama over Sen. John McCain]. It was actually, historically, very close on a percentage basis. There’s a feeling that there’s this broad support behind the president of the United States and the reality is that almost half the people voted for the other guy.”
Peek chimed in: “Obama’s negatives, which were very low when he got elected, have skyrocketed.”
“Fox, Fox, Fox, Fox,” banker Mohamed Ozalp teased.
It fell to Egyptian cement-and-tire mogul Omar Mohana to suggest that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobbying group known as AIPAC, was founded in the 1950s “when President Eisenhower took a very harsh stand [against Israel] during the Suez crisis”—forcing Israel to stop its military operation to control the blockaded canal—“and the Jewish groups said we need to form a lobby in the U.S. to make sure this is the last time we will be defeated this way.”
Mohana added: “We need to get on with our lives. We got trapped in these sick ideas of fundamentalism that have been inflicted on us and totally destroyed the Egyptian culture.”
The suave and gregarious Gabr, who flies back and forth to New York on his Gulfstream 200 and speaks idiomatic American, is chairman of the conglomerate ARTOC, whose corporate logo graces dozens of banners lining the recently paved road to the summit. He is supremely well-connected in both Egypt and the States. He chats with Dick Cheney, is looking forward to conferring soon with General Petraeus, and boasts of a close friendship with Rep. Howard Berman, the powerful Jewish congressman who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Last night Gabr’s two-dozen guests ranged from the managing director of Hewlett Packard Egypt to the press attaché of the Egyptian embassy in Washington. They supped on veal tenderloin and sea bass in the imposing dining room of his villa, with its museum-quality collection of Orientalist oil paintings, heavy crystal chandeliers, and, in one of several sitting rooms, a pair of huge elephant tusks that Gabr told me were actually plastic composite. The dinner party ended up on the terrace, next to a cerulean indoor swimming pool, where we basked in a warm breeze long past midnight and talked politics and policy over brandy and cigars.
Lloyd Grove is a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.