Despite Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s domestic troubles with his constitution, the New York Times has recently reported improved relations between Israel and Hamas through Egypt’s mediation. Rocket fire from Gaza into Israel has declined sharply; Israel has eased the blockade by permitting increased construction materials into Gaza and extending the zone for Palestinian fisherman in the Mediterranean Sea. Morsi could repair his battered international image after the recent protests in Egypt by enhancing his role as a responsible arbitrator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by utilizing his unique status as an Islamist leader. In the spirit of former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, the most effective way for him to fulfill this role would be to visit Jerusalem.
During the latest crisis in Gaza, Egypt served as a mediator between Israel and Hamas, the Islamist party currently controlling the Gaza Strip. Despite the recent violence in Gaza and the massive domestic pressure for a cut in ties, Morsi refused to annul the 1979 Peace Accords with Israel. Unlike America and other western nations who have labeled Hamas a terrorist organization and banned dialogue with the group, Morsi has strong relations with Hamas, allowing him to wield significant influence over them. Hamas arose as an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and the connection between the two groups are strong. In contrast, to his predecessor, Morsi has opened the Rafah Border allowing goods to enter Gaza from Egypt. When Morsi sent his Prime Minister to Gaza during the fighting where he was photographed holding a dead child at Shifra hospital, Morsi demonstrated that the days of Egypt acting as a perceived American lackey are over. But despite Morsi’s harder line against Israel, his government facilitated a ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas. Egypt showed its power as an arbitrator.
Nonetheless, the ceasefire reached between Israel and Hamas is still a temporary solution. The United Nations General Assembly’s recognition of the State of Palestine and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent announcement of increased settlement building outside of Jerusalem have brought negotiations between the two sides to a halt, eroding any sense of mutual trust. Someone needs to jumpstart the dying peace process. President Sadat’s 1977 visit to Jerusalem was key in galvanizing Israeli public opinion behind an eventual peace deal with Egypt that required withdrawing from the Sinai Peninsula—a territory acquired by Israel during the 1967 Mideast War. Until Sadat’s visit, no Arab leader had ever visited Israel. By following in Sadat’s footsteps, Morsi could bring new life to the peace process.
Now would be the perfect time for Morsi to follow Sadat’s courage and visit Israel. With elections in Israel approaching, polling data shows a heavy conservative leaning with Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman with a strong lead over any other party. Many Israelis after the onslaught of rockets on civilian populations during the recent Gaza violence feel insecure and isolated in the changing Middle East. A visit by Morsi, a leader from the Muslim Brotherhood party and one of the most powerful actors in the region, would dispel those fears. It would also undermine the somewhat anti-peace sentiment of the Netanyahu government. No longer could Netanyahu claim that the entire world is unjustifiably against Israel.
If Morsi visited Israel, it would be essential that he tour Israel’s Holocaust Museum, Yad Vashem and publicly acknowledge the crimes of the Holocaust both in English and Arabic. This would be a stinging rebuke of the ludicrous denial of the Holocaust championed by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and show a genuine understanding of Israeli fears necessary for any long-term peace agreement with the Palestinians. Additionally, it would be important for him to speak in front of the Israeli Parliament or Knesset showing respect for Israel’s democratic character while also clarifying his support for a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. This visit would force the Israeli public to genuinely consider the Palestinian conflict during the upcoming elections instead of focusing on domestic socio-economic issues. With former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni’s campaign currently struggling to articulate the importance of the two state solution for the future of Israel, Morsi has the power to change the entire election dialogue.
If Morsi visited Israel, he would not have to abandon his support for the Palestinian people. Part of his trip would most likely include a prayer service at the holy Al-Aqsa Mosque in East Jerusalem, confirming to the international community the Muslim connection to East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state. Furthermore, it is also imperative that he meets President Mahmoud Abbas at his compound in Ramallah. During the latest violence, Hamas gained increasing influence both in the Palestinian public and across the region. By meeting with Abbas on this historic visit, Morsi would demonstrate that the only way to solve this deadly conflict is through negotiations and non-violence. A state visit by Morsi would significantly increase Abbas’ image during a difficult period.
President Morsi has a unique ability to impact the peace process because of his religious background and the historical circumstances that propelled him into power. Thomas Friedman echoes this point explaining, “Morsi could offer Israel peace with the Egyptian people, and through them, the Muslim world beyond.” Now is the time for Morsi to use his unique influence by visiting Jerusalem.