Commentary: Israeli Shalom Cohen served in diplomatic shadows in Cairo, Tunis

Special to McClatchy NewspapersNovember 10, 2012 

If Daniel showed courage living in a lion’s den, the Shalom Cohen showed even more courage – he worked beneath a blue and white flag emblazoned with the Star of David as Israel’s first ambassador to Tunisia and then as ambassador to Egypt.

Every day Egyptian and Tunisian newspapers printed stories and cartoons showing Jews and Israelis as bloodthirsty, greedy and hateful. Nothing positive was allowed to appear. Journalists were barred from visiting Israel or interviewing Israelis. And Cohen was barred from answering any of the anti-Israel attacks. He could not even be interviewed by local reporters.

While serving as envoy in Tunisia from 1995-1999 he had to be accompanied by four heavily-armed Tunisian commandos. He worked in the diplomatic shadows – never mentioned in Tunisian newspapers and barred from most contacts with journalists and government officials. Although Egypt was technically at peace with Israel since 1979, Cohen needed eight armed Egyptian commandos to take him on his daily rounds.

Since Egyptian President Anwar Sadat flew to Jerusalem in 1977 to address the Israeli parliament, the peace process simmered then turned cold. Hosni Mubarak took power after Sadat but only visited Israel once-- for the funeral of assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The new Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi does not even mention the name “Israel.”

Morsi’s government continues the cold-peace stance towards Israel, pledging to honor its peace treaty. It recently sent a new ambassador to Tel Aviv who said Egypt was committed to peace. But real, warm peace between Egyptians and Israelis is simply not on the agenda of Cairo or Tunis, as Shalom Cohen can attest to.

Cohen’s posting to Tunisia in 1995 was a return to the land of his birth. Tunisia once had 110,000 Jews but after Israel was created in 1948, most fled to Israel along with Jews from Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Today, only 1,300 Jews remain in Tunisia.

Cohen had relatives there and he spoke Arabic and French. “But on the other side,” he said, “I could not really operate as a full-fledged diplomat under [Zine el-Abidine] Ben Ali” who was overthrown in 2011 at the start of the Arab Spring. “I had a special status, less good than the other diplomats. I was not invited to events and not part of the diplomatic community. We did not call our mission an embassy. We were an interest section.”

Cohen said that he went to Tunis during “a post-Oslo environment – the feeling that we were going to do something positive in the Arab world as well as in Israel.”

That positive feeling ended, Cohen said, after “terrorism by the Palestinians in 1995-1996. The Intifada. The killing of Rabin in 95. And the attacks on Israeli civilians – everything turned in a way to sour.” And Cohen remained in the diplomatic shadows.

“Once, the Tunisian minister of foreign affairs was asked at a press conference: ‘Is there an Israeli delegation in town?’” Cohen said with a wry smile in an interview. “He said ‘No’. But I saw him saying that on my TV in my house in Tunis.”

There has been no Israeli ambassador in Tunis since the second Intifada started in 2000.

Israeli-Arab peace remains blocked on a human level by the philosophy of “no normalization” This means there will be no normal relations with Israel or Israelis so long as the Palestinians are denied an independent state. There will be no Arab travel to Israel, no academic contacts, and no press contact.

“I was never in Tunisian press or TV,” said Cohen. “I reached out to Agence France Press and other international press but they did not come.

When Cohen asked the Interior Ministry to arrange meetings with public and private Tunisians, “all contacts were refused,” he recalled. He was able to attend functions at the U.S. Embassy and there he met with Arab dignitaries, “some of them nice, some normal and some of rude and inciting,” he said.

After Tunis, Cohen was Israeli ambassador to Egypt from 2005 to 2010. Once again he faced isolation – this time enforced by professional associations such as the journalists union. Like medieval guilds, these groups provide members with benefits such as paying less for school and food. But they also can enforce their views and have threatened to expel any member who has contacts with Israelis.

Cohen saw this up close after he met with a woman writer at the Al Ahram Center. She was denounced by her union, banned, fined and threatened. Cohen asked that I not publish her name. “She was an intellectual – open minded and wanted to prepare a seminar” on Israeli-Egyptian issues, Cohen said.

“Only a few journalists had permission to contact Israelis and everything was published under censorship by the union and the Mukabarat or secret police.”

In Cairo, he had a full embassy and “we had good relations with all ministries.” Military relations were good and intelligence as well.

“Only, they too did not want normalization,” he said. That meant “no journalists" interviews and no participation in the international film festival, the international music festival, the book fair. Israeli Arabs could participate in the Arab Music Festival,” but not Israeli Jews.

Cohen remains in the Israeli foreign service and will take up a new post in a few months. Until then he is a diplomat in residence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Asked about the future of Egypt, he said “I can’t predict.”

“We wish well to the Egyptian people – we wish them to be prosperous and hope the peace agreement will not be harmed in any way.”

The Arab Spring has brought about change from tyrannical dictatorship to more open liberal democracy but it could lead to negative developments if radicals come to power, he said. He found it “sad” and “bad” that Arab public opinion is shaped by horribly anti-Semitic cartoons, news articles and television shows. But he said the West must not give up and should “take a role in helping these countries in the transitional period and not leave them by themselves.”


Ben Barber has written about the developing world since 1980 for Newsday, the London Observer, the Christian Science Monitor,, Foreign Affairs, the Washington Times and USA TODAY. From 2003 to August, 2010, he was senior writer at the U.S. foreign aid agency. His photojournalism book — GROUNDTRUTH: The Third World at Work at play and at war — is to be published in 2012 by He can be reached at

McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.

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