On Wednesday evening, my husband and I went out for a rare and much-anticipated night out.
The occasion was the opening of the Pharaoh in Canaan exhibit at the Israel Museum. Besides the pleasant atmosphere, mingling with my husband’s archaeological colleagues, and free booze, I went because the newly instated Egyptian ambassador to Israel was touted as the guest of honor.
Hazem Khairat returned to Israel last week after four years in which Egypt had no ambassador here. He must have something interesting to say; it would surely make an interesting topic for my blog, I told myself.
But Khairat didn’t show. There was no official reason given.
Was he sick? Did he receive a better invitation? If he couldn’t come because of extenuating circumstances, couldn’t he have sent his deputy or another representative?
His absence was glaring. What could have promoted dialogue based on our shared past became yet another missed opportunity. Sadly, the Middle East has a long history of this. At the Israel Museum, Egypt had a golden chance to reverse that trend.
Surely, Egypt sent a top diplomat back to us for a reason: for rapprochement, not to further strain ties.
To qualify all of this, Khairat’s appointment comes at a particularly volatile time in Egypt-Israel relations.
Shortly after Khairat presented his diplomatic credentials to our president last week, the Egyptian parliament voted to oust one of its members for meeting with Khairat’s Israeli counterpart, our ambassador there. One of his colleagues threw a shoe at him. To be fair, Egypt has legitimate criticism for Israel.
Yet, it hasn’t been all bad. Not long ago, Egypt introduced its peace treaty with Israel into its school textbooks, a small but important step toward real peace and understanding.
Back at the museum, I was particularly upset about Khairat’s absence because archaeology is such a universal topic. It has a way of erasing myths and bravado and focusing on common history based on hard evidence. Instead of polemic, archaeology offers pottery.
Why come back to Israel at all if he wasn’t going to attend the most apolitical, cultural, and unifying of events?
To say his absence was a missed opportunity belies the potential of such an appearance. Had Khairat attended he would have sent a clear diplomatic message. He may have offered criticism in a constructive way; he may have made us think about the long way we have come together and what more we can do. He would have contributed to turning a new page in our fraught relations with Egypt, to warming our cold peace.
Mr. Ambassador, we can’t afford to miss any more opportunities around here. You are in a powerful position. Please fulfill your mission of building relationships between our two countries; don’t degrade them even more.