Egyptian officer caught on tape backing Trump on Jerusalem

CAIRO • As United States President Donald Trump moved last month to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, an Egyptian intelligence officer quietly placed phone calls to the hosts of several influential talk shows in Egypt.

"Like all our Arab brothers", Egypt would denounce the decision in public, the officer, Captain Ashraf al-Kholi, told the hosts.

But strife with Israel was not in Egypt's national interest, Capt Kholi said. He told the hosts that instead of condemning the decision, they should persuade their viewers to accept it. Palestinians, he suggested, should content themselves with the dreary West Bank town that currently houses the Palestinian Authority, Ramallah.

"How is Jerusalem different from Ramallah, really?" Capt Kholi asked repeatedly in four audio recordings of his telephone calls obtained by the New York Times.

"Exactly that," agreed one host, Mr Azmi Megahed, who confirmed the authenticity of the recording.

Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of a state they seek to establish in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israel regards Jerusalem as its eternal and indivisible capital.

For decades, Arab states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia have publicly criticised Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, while privately acquiescing to Israel's continued occupation of territory the Palestinians claim as their homeland. But now, a de facto alliance against shared foes such as Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic State in Iraq and Syria militants and the Arab Spring uprisings is drawing the Arab leaders into an ever-closer collaboration with their one-time nemesis, Israel - producing especially stark juxtapositions between their posturing in public and private.

Mr Trump's decision broke with a central premise of 50 years of American-sponsored peace talks, defied decades of Arab demands that East Jerusalem be the capital of a Palestinian state, and stoked fears of a violent backlash across the Middle East. Arab governments, mindful of the popular sympathy for the Palestinian cause, rushed to publicly condemn it.

But days before Mr Trump's announcement, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman privately urged Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to accept a radically curtailed vision of statehood without a capital in East Jerusalem, according to Palestinian, Arab and European officials who have heard Mr Abbas' version of events.

Saudi Arabia publicly disputed those reports.

The hosts Capt Kholi called all heeded his advice, and most other voices in the state-owned and pro-government news media across the Arab world were also strikingly muted about the status of Jerusalem. Such a response would have been all but unthinkable even a decade ago, much less during the period between 1948 and 1973, when Egypt and its Arab allies fought three wars against Israel.

NYTIMES, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 10, 2018, with the headline 'Egyptian officer caught on tape backing Trump on Jerusalem'. Print Edition | Subscribe