U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is scheduled to head back to Israel on Monday following a whirlwind Middle East tour that took in the Jewish state, Jordan, Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt.
Blinken has already updated U.S. President Joe Biden, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients on the outcome of the visits.
In the Middle East and elsewhere, Blinken and other U.S. officials have increasingly emphasized the humanitarian crisis in Gaza in their conversations with world leaders. The secretary reportedly pushed back against some regional leaders who criticized Israel harshly over its response to Hamas’s deadly attack, which killed more than 1,400 Israelis and wounding more than 3,500.
His meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Cairo was particularly tense. The Egyptian official, whose country has not welcomed Gazans across the border following Israeli warnings for Gaza residents to evacuate south, denounced the “hurting or harming” of any civilians.
According to a U.S. State Department transcript that often records el-Sisi’s remarks as “inaudible,” the Egyptian leader claimed that in “five rounds of conflict,” 12,500 Palestinian civilians had been killed, including 2,500 Palestinian children, compared to 2,700 Israelis, 150 of them children.
“I’m saying this now because we are facing here a huge crisis, and I’m quite concerned about the reaction—they just overextend the right of self-defense, and it turns into a convicted punishment of 2.3 million Palestinians,” said el-Sisi. He then claimed that Hamas’s attack was “the result of accumulated fury and hatred over four decades, where the Palestinians had no hope to find a solution.”
And then the Egyptian president tried his hand at teaching Blinken, himself a Jew, about Jewish history.
“Mr. Secretary, you spoke about the crisis and you spoke as a Jewish person, and let me tell you that I am an Egyptian citizen, and I was born and brought up in a neighborhood where we had Jewish neighbors,” said el-Sisi. “Jews, who used to live here in Egypt, not ever suffered from oppression and persecution—targeted.”
“As a matter of fact, the Jews were never targeted in the (inaudible) in over—throughout the whole history,” el-Sisi continued, speaking via translator. “Maybe [they]were persecuted in Europe—in certain European countries and some other countries—but this will not happen before. What is happening now and what we see now is a tidal wave that is a direct consequence of the crisis and its accumulated symptoms.”
When it was Blinken’s turn to speak, the U.S. diplomat told el-Sisi, “I come first and foremost as a human being, a human being like so many others appalled at the atrocities committed by Hamas.”
“It’s hard to find the words to describe them, but ‘inhumane’ is a good place to start. We’re determined to stand against Hamas and what it has done, and to make sure that it can’t happen again,” he said. “We’re determined to stand with and for innocent civilians who suffer primarily as a consequence of what Hamas has done on all sides.”
Blinken did not respond to el-Sisi’s suggestion that Israel was ultimately responsible for Hamas’s atrocities, that Egypt has not oppressed Jews or that Hamas’s actions were new in the region and more typical of “certain European countries.”
Only about 100 Jews remain in Egypt today, out of a population of more than 80,000 in 1948, per the World Jewish Congress, which notes anti-Jewish violence and antisemitism in Egypt in 1945, 1948, 1956 and 1967. “Today, the Egyptian Jewish community is incredibly small and almost entirely concentrated in Cairo,” according to the WJC. “Nearly all the Jews are elderly, and the community is on the verge of extinction.”
Ezra Cohen, a Hudson Institute fellow and former U.S. intelligence official, blasted the Egyptian president’s remarks.
“The United States gives billions of dollars of military aid to Egypt and in return our secretary of state gets dressed down by this wannabe dictator,” he tweeted.
Robert Satloff, executive director of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, tweeted: “With great respect to Egypt’s President Sisi: Here is a partial list of violent attacks on Jews in Arab lands in just first half of 20th century—Fez, 1912; Constantine, 1934; Baghdad, 1941; Alexandria, 1945; Aleppo, Aden, 1947; Tripoli, Cairo, 1948.”
He added that while “it is certainly true that a Jew born in the first half of the 20th century was better off in the Arab world than in Europe … the Holocaust makes this a very low bar—life was no ‘garden of Eden’ for the vast majority of dhimmis in Arab lands,” referring to the Islamic term for non-Muslims. “Since 1948, the story is much worse.”