NEW YORK — Need something new to worry about the Mideast these days?
Consider that the candidate emerging as the likely next president of Egypt is one of Israel’s fiercest critics — and that seems to be one of the key factors in his widespread popularity.
My one encounter with Amr Moussa, the 74-year-old head of the Arab League who has a huge lead in polls leading up to democratic elections planned for the fall, leads me to think that we’ll soon be pining for Hosni Mubarak.
Early hopes for an Arab Spring in Egypt that would usher in an era of democracy and tolerance faded months ago. But it is particularly worrisome to see that Moussa has 25 percent of the vote in polling; Mohamed ElBaradei, the diplomat who was director of the International Atomic Energy Association, is a distant second, with five percent.
A report in the July 18 issue of Newsweek, “Egypt’s Rising Power Player,” describes Moussa as “on tract to succeed Mubarak, and that spells danger for Israel.”
The article says that “what his supporters love most is his long and vocal history of anti-Israel diatribes,” and in the interview Moussa calls the Mideast peace process “just [an Israeli] trick to continue talking and make the cameras flash…but there’s no substance. We shall not engage in such a thing anymore. Never.”
Newsweek notes that Moussa, who is actively courting the Islamist vote, has based much of his political career on being “one of Israel’s most relentless detractors in Egypt,” confronting Israelis at conferences and in television interviews to such an extent that a popular Egyptian song, whose title translates to “I Hate Israel,” makes reference to Moussa.
I saw Moussa in action at a conference in Petra, Jordan in June 2008, sponsored by the King of Jordan and the Elie Wiesel Foundation, whose theme was Mideast cooperation.
One of the few flashes of tension came from Moussa, who became incensed when Israeli President Shimon Peres, speaking at a lunch meeting, noted how Israel had made peace with Egypt and Jordan.
Though not scheduled to speak at the session, Moussa insisted on responding, angrily taking the podium and charging that Israel has been unwilling to deal forthrightly with the Palestinians while continuing to build settlements and demolish Arab homes.
“You are a master talker,” he said angrily to Peres, “but please, we cannot be taken for granted.”
Many in the audience, made up primarily of Arab participants, applauded loudly.
Peres, maintaining his composure, rose to respond briefly, pointing out that Israel dismantled all of its Gaza settlements and left Gaza, “so why is Gaza shooting” Kassam rockets almost daily?
He urged the leader of the Arab League to come to Israel and make his case to the Knesset, and “tell us how you can guarantee an end to the shooting.”
But Moussa had already made, and scored, his points.
For now, the only good news is that Moussa says he is opposed to abolishing Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, and polls show a whopping 57 percent of the population remains undecided.
There is still time before the fall elections, and maybe Egyptians will come to realize that an aging political figure with close ties to Mubarak, determined to oppose a potential economic partner next door (Israel), and with no platform for serious reform of the country’s political system, is not what Egypt needs today.
(Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, can be reached at email@example.com. This column previously appeared in the Week.)