Neighbors / Fiddling With the Devil

It makes no difference how much the uncovering of a terrorist network operated by Hezbollah in Egypt shook up public opinion there, and the extent to which the Egyptian media stretched the boundaries of criticism - or to be more exact, the invective - that it showered on Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.

None of this brought normalization with Israel even a centimeter closer. You had to hear the criticism voiced by some of the intellectuals, the journalists and the Egyptian MPs regarding the appearance of Daniel Barenboim in the Cairo Opera House last week in order to understand that Hezbollah is one thing and Israel is another.

Barenboim was invited by the Austrian embassy to conduct the Egyptian Philharmonic Orchestra. Egyptian Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni, who is opposed to normalization with Israel, gave his blessing, an attractive 1,200-seat auditorium was filled to capacity, and the Israeli conductor, who also played solo selections on the piano, received tumultuous applause.

Barenboim was introduced to the audience by famous Egyptian actor Omar Sharif. He explained that he loves Barenboim's work and his opinions, and that he is a man who sows conciliation.

For his part, Barenboim, the first Israeli conductor to appear in Cairo after 30 years of peace, told the enthusiastic audience that from a young age he has been "worried about Israel's lack of interest in the lives of neighboring countries," and that through music he tries to break through this ignorance on both sides.

But this musical effort did not convince Arab League Secretary General Amru Musa, who declined the invitation to attend the performance.

Minister of Culture Hosni on the other hand flipped and flopped. He made sure to explain to the concert audience that the maestro has honorary Palestinian citizenship and is known for his opposition to "Israeli belligerence, and belongs to the moderates who favor peace and support the Palestinians."

However, before the performance, in an interview with the Saudi television network MBC, Hosni explained that he had not changed his views, and that he "agrees with all the Egyptian intellectuals that normalization with Israel will come in good time" (in other words, not now).

"The Egyptian minister of culture must be attentive to the pulse of the Egyptian and Arab street," he said, "and to represent the artists who oppose normalization with Israel at this time. It is inconceivable for the public to sing and dance and watch theater together. Alongside the blood, the corpses and the daily Israeli belligerence against the unfortunate Palestinian people in Gaza and the West Bank."

Out of the goodness of his heart he made sure to make a clear distinction: "I'm not against the Jews," he emphasized.

If he is so opposed to normalization, why did the honorable minister invite the Israeli conductor to perform in the opera house? The reason, say his rivals, is that Hosni aspires to the position of chairman of the UNESCO Executive Board, and for that purpose he needs the support of Israel, which is opposed to his election.

"Hosni brought in this Zionist symbol through the back door, and that's just the start. Tomorrow we'll see another entire Israeli orchestra performing in Egypt," said MP Mustafa Bakri, accusing Hosni of being ingratiating to the Israelis in order to attain the lofty position.

Ingratiating or not, Israel is still opposed to his election, claiming that it is inconceivable that the most important international cultural institution should be headed by a person who has never visited Israel and is opposed to normalization with it.

Perhaps in order to respond to this claim, Hosni explained in the interview with MBC that as head of UNESCO he will of course behave differently from the way he does as Egyptian minister of culture, and "if the job requires a visit to Israel, of course I'll visit Israel."

But meanwhile he has to respond to additional attacks against him. Just recently the Egyptian Interior Ministry banned publication of the important ministry cultural journal Ibdaa. The reason: the publication of a poem by poet Hilmi Salem called "On the Balcony of Leila Murad," which, according to an indictment against the poet and the publisher, is blasphemous.

A year ago Salem was forced to return the literature prize that he had won for this poem, and last week distribution of the periodical was prohibited. Although Hosni explained that he is opposed to censorship, he did nothing to prevent the ban.

Funded by Hezbollah

At the end of the week a strange announcement emerged from the headquarters of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade Ayman Joudah Shura Council. The organization decided, out of solidarity with Egypt, to sever any contact with Hezbollah.

Why is that strange? Because this organization is a faction of the military arm of Fatah that operates in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

So what does a Fatah offshoot have to do with Hezbollah?

It turns out that despite ideological differences, the organization received financial assistance from both Hezbollah and Hamas. This assistance was not given free of charge.

The Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade Shura Council (As opposed to the "official" Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade) cooperated with Hamas during Operation Cast Lead and launched several Qassam rockets at Israel.

"Our connection with Hezbollah stemmed from the fact that this organization was the only funder of our organization, and not from nationalist or sectarian considerations or from regional agendas," explained the group in a letter it sent to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.

The fact that Hezbollah funds various and sundry Palestinian groups is nothing new. The question is to what extent Abbas knows who really is subordinate to him, and who among his followers receives instructions from outside groups.