I’ll be the first to say it’s not the end of the world just because an Egyptian athlete refused to shake hands with his Israeli counterpart at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro last week.
After all, the Egyptian is the one who violated judo etiquette. He’s the one whom the fans booed. I won’t lose any sleep over his petty insult, and I doubt many Israelis will either. But the incident, as small as it was, does offer some food for thought about much bigger issues, such as the prospects for peace between Israel and her Arab neighbors.
The Judo Snubber, Mr. Islam El Shehaby, was born on August 1, 1982. In other words, he was born nearly five years after Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem. Four years after the successful Camp David negotiations. Three and a half years after the signing of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty. Three months after the final Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai.
Which is to say that El Shehaby has never known anything but peace with Israel. Throughout his entire life, Egypt has been at peace, not at war, with the Jewish state. So if El Shehaby hates Israel, it’s not because of anything in his personal experience. He’s not a bitter war veteran. He didn’t watch his friends die in some tank battle with the Israelis. There has to be some other reason to explain his hostility. And there is.
The peace treaty requires both parties to “abstain from hostile propaganda” against each other. Former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin insisted on that clause because he understood that for peace to last, it has to be between peoples, not just between leaders.
Leaders, of course, come and go. Sadat was assassinated in October 1981, even before Israel’s final withdrawal. Begin resigned from office in October 1983. For peace between Israel and Egypt to endure, both countries had to consciously educate their people to accept it.
The Israeli public didn’t need much convincing. The Israelis, after all, were the victims. They were the ones who were desperate for peace. And even those who had some qualms about Israel’s enormous concessions — giving up the entire Sinai peninsula, surrendering the oil fields, tearing down the Jewish communities in the Yamit region — soon retreated from their opposition.
Not so in Egypt. Neither Sadat nor his successors ever made any serious effort to educate the younger generation to accept peace. The Egyptian government-controlled media, mosques, and schools continued to spout hatred of Israel and Jews.
As a child, Islam El Shehaby no doubt was inculcated with the same anti-Israel and anti-Semitic hatred that dominated Egyptian society before there was a peace treaty. Real peace never took hold. The treaty has been, and remains, little more than a long-term ceasefire.
Now, a ceasefire is of course much better than gunfire. But a ceasefire is a fragile thing. If it’s not backed by deep, wide-ranging societal support for peace, then it could be broken at any time, by some new leader who decides he prefers war. And because the Egyptian public has been educated and conditioned for war all these years, it will back him up.
That’s the problem with Islam El Shehaby. He continues to view Israel as the enemy, all these years later. That’s why he could not bring himself to shake the hand of his Israeli judo opponent. There may be “peace,” but he’s ready for war–ready and willing.
Which is why so many Israelis are reluctant about the idea of establishing a Palestinian state next door. If 34 years after the peace treaty was signed, an Egyptian athlete still will not even shake hands with an Israeli, what does that portend for peace with the Palestinians, whose entire society is drenched in hatred of Israel and Jews?
The consolation that Israelis can derive from peace with Egypt is that although it’s shallow, at least most of the Egyptian army is separated from Israel by the Sinai. A Palestinian army, however, would be just a few miles from Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Jerusalem. That’s too much of a risk to ask Israelis to take. They have every right to wait until they see meaningful changes in Palestinian society before they start talking about taking those kinds of chances. The non-handshake in Rio de Janeiro is a reminder of that reality.