October 13, 2010
Last Friday, I spent a wonderful hour speaking by phone with Harry McPherson. He was President Lyndon Johnson’s chief counsel, and it was his good luck — though it may not have seemed it at the time — to have landed in Tel Aviv on June 5, 1967, just hours before the sounds of bursting artillery shells rocked him awake.
McPherson, who still goes to work each day at his Washington, D.C., law office, is one of the last insider witnesses to the Six-Day War.
McPherson told me what it was like to be in Israel at a time when the country was in full-on war against Egypt, its existential enemy, whose then-President Gamal Abdel Nasser had repeatedly vowed to drive the Jews into the sea and “have lunch in Tel Aviv by the next week.”
Six days and thousands of dead bodies later, McPherson returned to Washington to report to the president on what had been one of the most astounding wars two blood enemies had ever fought.
I had to hang up with McPherson in order to run to my next appointment. I arrived at downtown City Hall just ahead of a man carrying an oud —the bulbous Arabic stringed instrument — who had a hard time convincing security officers it was really just a funny-looking guitar.
The two of us were headed to the same place. In the building’s rotunda about 200 people were gathered to welcome the Consul General of Egypt, Ambassador Hesham Elnakib, who has just moved the Egyptian consulate from San Francisco to Los Angeles. He was being feted with a brief concert arranged by Consul General of Israel Jacob Dayan. The musicians were the Israeli pop stars Miri Mesika and Rami Kleinstein and the great Egyptian oud player Hosam Ibrahem — the man in the security line.
The event had all the hallmarks of your normal cross-cultural get together, at least on the surface. City Councilman and future mayoral hopeful Eric Garcetti welcomed the crowd of Egyptian, Jewish and Los Angeles civic leaders, as did City Councilwoman Jan Perry, also a future mayoral hopeful, and City Councilman Tom LaBonge, ditto. Each made the same point: L.A. is a richly diverse and welcoming city.
In their moving remarks, Consuls General Dayan and Elnakib both recalled the moment Egyptian President Anwar Sadat met Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin on Israeli soil. The Israelis couldn’t believe that the leader of a country that had tried to annihilate Israel for 20 years had come to make peace. Elnakib said he couldn’t even believe it was really his president on the airplane bound for Israel — there was a rumor that the whole thing was a trick.
It wasn’t a trick. Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty in 1978, but their relations have never risen above frosty. No blood has been spilled, but no love has been lost, either.
That’s why anyone who pays attention to Mideast politics knows that beneath the surface, the concert at the City Hall rotunda was not your usual kumbaya.
Dayan risked rejection in reaching out to Elnakib. The Israeli was the first consul to officially welcome him to Los Angeles. The fact that Dayan also arranged for a small performance to take place during the event made it even more unusual: The two countries may cooperate on blocking Gaza tunnels and having dinners with American diplomats, but their cultural cooperation has been close to nil.
For Elnakib, the price of accepting Dayan’s invitation could be even more steep.
In Egypt, there is still widespread antipathy to normalizing relations with Israel. Hardly any Egyptians travel in Israel, and the media there still regularly disparages the country. And just last June, a Cairo court upheld a ruling by Mufti Nasser Farid Wasil, the second-highest religious authority in Egypt, that urged the government to strip of their citizenship Egyptian men who are married to Israeli women. Keep in mind the vast majority of the 3,000 Egyptian-Israeli marriages are between Egyptian men and Arab Israeli women.
I asked Elnakib whether the event would receive coverage in the Egyptian press. He shrugged. “I invited them.”
I asked whether he would face any backlash in the Egyptian media. “Look,” he said, sounding very Israeli, “I’m the consul general. I’m not the president.”
It would be easy for anyone, especially an Israeli diplomat, to look at such evidence and write off the Egyptians as a lost cause, to view the relationship as a cold peace.
Cynicism is chic in many parts of the Jewish community: The Egyptians are cold; the Palestinians aren’t serious; the Americans only care about themselves. These are the tropes I hear over and over, and sometimes they’re dead on, but often they’re an excuse for inaction, for not doing what the cynic likely wouldn’t do under any circumstance, anyway. The ceremony in the rotunda reminds us that no move toward peace is without risk, without disappointment. What should push us forward is the realization that the threat of no settlement, no dialogue, is very often much greater.
The moving part of the ceremony was watching Dayan and Elnakib listen to the music recital. They stood shoulder to shoulder, arms crossed in front of their dark, tailored suits, each man clutching his left wrist with his right hand — they looked as much like synchronized swimmers as diplomats.
For a brief afternoon, it seemed utterly possible that in the future, Egyptians really would be having many lunches in Tel Aviv.