As President Donald Trump moved last month to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, an Egyptian intelligence officer quietly placed phone calls to the hosts of several influential talk shows in Egypt.
“Like all our Arab brothers,” Egypt would denounce the decision in public, Capt. Ashraf al-Kholi told the hosts.
But strife with Israel was not in Egypt’s national interest, Kholi said. He told the hosts that instead of condemning the decision, they should persuade their viewers to accept it. Palestinians, he suggested, should content themselves with the dreary West Bank town that is home to the Palestinian Authority: Ramallah.
“How is Jerusalem different from Ramallah, really?” Kholi asked repeatedly in four audio recordings of his telephone calls obtained by The New York Times.
“Exactly that,” agreed one host, Azmi Megahed, who confirmed the authenticity of the recording.
For decades, powerful Arab states such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia have publicly criticized Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians while privately acquiescing to Israel’s continued occupation of territory the Palestinians claim as their homeland.
But now a de facto alliance against shared foes such as Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic State militants and the Arab Spring uprisings is drawing the Arab leaders into an ever-closer collaboration with their one-time nemesis, Israel.
Trump’s decision defied decades of Arab demands that East Jerusalem be the capital of a Palestinian state.
Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Arab governments, mindful of the popular sympathy for the Palestinian cause, rushed to publicly condemn it.
However, Saudi Arabia had already quietly signaled its acquiescence or even tacit approval of the Israeli claim to Jerusalem. Days before Trump’s announcement, the Saudi crown prince, Mohamed bin Salman, privately urged Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to accept a radically curtailed vision of statehood without a capital in East Jerusalem, according to Palestinian, Arab and European officials who have heard Abbas’ version of events.
Saudi Arabia publicly disputed those reports.