Jun 6, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Egyptian official faced "tense" grilling from U.S. lawmakers

Photo illustration of the US Capitol, Palestinian flag and Israeli flag.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Egypt's ambassador to the U.S. Motaz Zahran was raked over the coals in a call with U.S. House members last month over a botched ceasefire proposal that preceded Israel's invasion of Rafah, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: The episode reflects longstanding tensions between many pro-Israel U.S. lawmakers and the Arab countries that have served as mediators between Israel and Hamas.

  • Egypt and Qatar have continued to play key roles in efforts to forge a ceasefire and hostage deal between the two sides, Axios' Barak Ravid reported.

Driving the news: At issue on the call was Hamas' announcement in early May that it had accepted an Egyptian-Qatari brokered ceasefire proposal, according to three lawmakers who spoke to Axios on the condition of anonymity to offer details of a private discussion.

  • Israeli officials said the announcement caught them off guard and accused Egypt of giving Hamas a new proposal without coordinating with Israel.
  • CNN reported weeks later that Egyptian intelligence quietly changed the terms of a proposal that Israel had signed off on earlier in May.
  • Shortly after the episode, which strained relations between Israel and the U.S., Israel began military operations in the southern Gazan city of Rafah.

What we're hearing: During the call, Zahran was asked if he feels Egypt "lost credibility" from the incident, according to one of the House members, who said the ambassador got "so mad" in response.

  • The lawmaker characterized Zahran's response as: "Not at all. No, no. I mean, we're still hosting [ceasefire talks]. How could we have lost credibility if [Israel and Hamas] are still in Cairo negotiating?"
  • The ambassador's response to lawmakers' questions was "quite defensive," said another member on the call.
  • "It was a tense call ... we were very clear with them that we needed Egypt to step up," a third lawmaker said.

Zoom out: Egypt and other Arab countries involved in ceasefire negotiations have faced accusations from pro-Israel members of Congress of being overly hostile to Israel and cozy with Hamas.

  • A bipartisan group needled Egypt last October to "recognize its humanitarian responsibility" to provide safe zones for Palestinians and facilitate the flow of aid to Gaza after the country criticized Israel's treatment of Palestinians in the enclave.
  • Qatar has also come under fire, with lawmakers arguing in January that the country has "not fully leveraged its relationship with Hamas to ensure all hostages are released without delay."

"Egypt should have been playing a much more involved role in the situation ... I think they have not helped nearly as much as they could have," one of the lawmakers on the call told Axios.

  • "I think there is a lot of frustration with both the Egyptian ambassador and the Egyptian government."
  • The Egyptian embassy in Washington didn't respond to a request for comment.
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