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Visit with Egyptian Council on Foreign Affairs illustrated our division

Have you ever had a conversation with a group of people with whom you shared no common perspective? Not only do you disagree with their view of how things are and should be, but as they speak you realize you share a totally different view of history.

This is how I felt meeting a half-dozen members of the Egyptian Council on Foreign Affairs, an independent organization of diplomats, academics and businessmen whose purpose is to promote communication between Egypt and the international community. Their relentless attack on Israel as a great evil and on the American media as a tool of the Jews made me at first angry and defensive, and then sad and resigned.

These leading Egyptian lights, the intellectuals of Egyptian society, had a uniformly rigid and simplistic view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Israelis are land-stealing murderers, and Palestinians are brutally occupied freedom fighters who should be free to use any means at their disposal to get back their land. Conversing with them quickly went from "where do I begin?" to "why bother."

The group of columnists and editorial writers with whom I was traveling had been warned that the recent Israeli aggressions in responding to relentless suicide attacks had created a "poisonous" atmosphere in Egypt. But I did not expect the fire-breathing to come from the upper echelon.

Although no Arab nation has a longer-standing peace with Israel _ the courageous former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat signed a peace treaty in 1979 and was assassinated for it _ the peace is cold, very cold. Israel's legitimacy has not been internalized by Egypt's leading citizens or its government leaders _ at least not by most of them.

General Habib El-Adli, Egypt's minister of the interior and the man in charge of domestic security, tells us bluntly that though his forces actively scout for violent Islamic extremists who might threaten his own country or the United States, he shares nothing with Israel. "I don't have cooperation with Israel's security forces," El-Adli says.

This is a man who should understand Israel's asserted right to protect itself from terrorism. Egyptian security forces have been on a tear since 1997, when 58 tourists were killed near Luxor by religious extremists looking to rock the government of President Hosni Mubarak. Our State Department and international human rights groups estimate that between 13,000 and 16,000 Islamic fundamentalists are now sitting in Egyptian prisons without charge due to suspected terrorist or illegal political activities, and many thousands more have been convicted on similar charges.

In Israel's case, though, El-Adli's sympathies lie with those who purposely strap on bombs filled with nails to kill and maim as many civilians as possible. "The Palestinian people are occupied," he said. "When someone loses his land, his family, loses his dignity, he has a strong motivation to respond with violence."

We heard a similar, one-sided refrain from most of the other dignitaries. Nothing measured or productive was offered, only the repeated insistence that the U.S. intervene to control Israel and either push it back to the negotiating table or impose a two-state solution.

But then we had the luck of spending a wonderfully refreshing hour with Ahmed Maher, the country's foreign minister.

Maher opened the meeting with a bit of gallows humor, thanking us for coming to help the country's sagging tourism. (In the last two years, since the launch of the second intifada, tourism has dropped from 450,000 visitors per year to about 50,000. Ironically, Israelis had been their biggest market.)

He was no booster of Israel, but Maher understood what was to be gained through peace and cooperation between Arabs and Israelis and what could be lost if the region continues to be diverted by this conflict.

"(The Israeli and Palestinian) economies are suffering, and I think their souls are suffering," Maher said. "It cannot be good for the soul to occupy a people, to blow yourself up among civilians."

Matter-of-factly Maher told us that the offer of a Palestinian state presented to Yasser Arafat during the meetings at the Egyptian resort town of Taba in the final days of the Clinton presidency was "much better than what had been offered before." It was "another missed opportunity," he said, and then added, "the Middle East is full of missed opportunities."

Maher believes the touchiest issues were well on their way to being solved at Taba, including the right of return. He sees the blueprint for peace as very close at hand, that is if both sides can see past the violence.

"If they can find their way to a political solution, I think they will live together in a very friendly way," Maher said. "This is a land of miracles."

Unfortunately, he was the only one in the whole country who made us think that was true.