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Egypt: Model of Mideast Peace

September 1, 1999

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) _ Here’s one window on the state of the Middle East: An Egyptian entrepreneur who speaks proudly of the business he’s built with Israel, and fondly of the Jewish business contacts who call with greetings on Muslim holidays.

Here’s another: A summer movie, just one among the latest of many Egyptian releases with a similar theme, that depicts an Israeli seductress nearly succeeding at luring a trusting young Egyptian into her father’s plot to rule the world.

Both views are worth studying now that other Arab states at last appear ready to follow the lead of Egypt. Two decades ago, Egypt was the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel. The Palestinians and Israelis reached an interim agreement in 1993, and Jordan signed a peace treaty with the Jewish state a year later.

First in peace _ albeit a strained and fitful one _ Egypt is the model for the Middle East as it faces the challenge of turning its back on decades of violence and distrust to forge a new relationship. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright heads here Thursday at the start of a Mideast tour.

Since buying a fertilizer company six years ago, Egyptian entrepreneur Amr Waly has viewed the future partly in terms of the basic elements of the same desert soil Egyptians and Israelis struggle to make bloom.

Egypt produces nitrogen, Israel produces potassium and phosphate. Waly mixes the three in his factory in the southern Egyptian city of Fayum, and sells the soil additive to small farmers and backyard gardeners.

Importing materials from neighboring Israel instead of Europe saves time and money. But Egyptians who lost sons or were wounded themselves in Egypt’s 1967 and 1973 wars with Israel have rejected his product. Waly was just a child during those conflicts, and wants to keep history out of business.

``Business has no religion, no nationality,″ he said.

Egyptian-Israeli trade, excluding Israeli oil imports, totaled a paltry $74 million in 1998, said Reuven Azar, economic officer at the Israeli embassy in Cairo.

He hopes for improvement, and was encouraged by the interest he saw Egyptians taking in the Israeli leadership elections earlier this year, when moderate Ehud Barak trounced Benjamin Netanyahu.

While Waly can speak of friendship with Israeli businessmen he has known for years, all many Egyptians know of their Israeli neighbors is what they see in movies like ``The Girl from Israel.″ That summer thriller ended with the too-trusting Egyptian saved by elders whose wisdom has been sharpened in war.

Egypt has proven it is possible to make peace with Israel without giving up the right to criticize it, and that has made it easier for other Arabs to consider coming to terms with the Jewish state, said Kenneth Stein, director of Emory University’s Middle East Research Program.

Egypt also set the pattern for dealing pragmatically with Israel, said Stein.

Egypt contends the Camp David agreement was the first step toward a comprehensive peace that would address the concerns of Palestinians and other Arabs. But Stein said Egyptian President Anwar Sadat signed the 1979 agreement chiefly to retrieve the Sinai Peninsula, and get better relations with and financial aid from the United States.

Thanks to Camp David funding provisions, Israel and Egypt receive more U.S. foreign aid than any other country in the world. It has meant clean drinking water, electricity and immunizations for millions of Egyptians.

``Sadat was interested in helping Egypt first. That idea ... has now captured most of the Arab world,″ Stein said.

Syria, for instance, appears ready to strike a deal with Israel to get territory back, rebuffing Egyptian efforts to mediate. But the most populous country in this corner of the world, with one of the region’s most powerful armies, will certainly continue to be an influence as Arabs make peace with Israel and learn to live with the Jewish state.

As for the pragmatic world of business, fertilizer entrepreneur Waly is exporting his Israeli-Egyptian mix to other Arab countries.

``We have to face reality,″ Waly said. ``Israel is real.″

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