A Tale of Two Envoys: In Jerusalem a Special Passover, in Cairo a Chill

updated 04/07/1980 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/07/1980 01:00AM

As Jews at Passover tables around the world this week celebrate the Israelites' deliverance from the Egyptian Pharaoh, a very special seder will be held in Cairo—ironically, at the Pharaoh Hotel. With kosher chicken, wine and matzo flown in from Tel Aviv, Elijahu Ben-Elissar, 48, Israel's first ambassador to Egypt, will entertain the 120 people remaining in the city's once large and thriving Jewish community. At the same time in Jerusalem, Israel's prime minister, Menachem Begin, will welcome an exceptionally honored guest to the Passover feast: Saad Mortada, 57, Egypt's first ambassador to Israel. Nothing could better symbolize the end to 30 years of hostilities between the neighboring Middle East states than the breaking of matzo together in their two capitals. Yet, as the pioneer ambassadors have learned during their first month in office, harsh political differences remain between their countries, impervious to symbols.

The two ambassadors are remarkably alike—both affable, well educated, cosmopolitan men with fluent French and English in addition to their native languages. But the welcomes they have received in their host countries could hardly be less similar. In Israel, Mortada is a social lion. He is showered with invitations, lovingly profiled by the press, badgered for autographs and courted by the government's highest officials. But Ben-Elissar has found Cairo considerably less hospitable. No newspaper interview has appeared, even finding a landlord who would rent him an apartment has been a time-consuming and as yet fruitless ordeal, and there have been no dinner invitations from Egyptian officials. "I was in at least 60 Egyptian homes," jokes his wife, Nitza, 46, who so far has used none of the 15 evening gowns she was advised to bring to Cairo. "But not by invitation. I entered them when searching for a residence.

"I think there is a psychological barrier," she adds. "The owner of one house we wanted was a rather charming and polite army general, who apologized and explained that his brother was one of the very first soldiers killed in battle in 1948, and therefore he will not lease a flat to an Israeli."

There is nothing personal about the two ambassadors' contrasting experiences. "The Israelis would love any Egyptian who comes to Israel," says Mortada. "It has nothing to do with me. It is the peace." Likewise Ben-Elissar's ostracism in Cairo is a response not to the man but to what he represents: a nation that has defeated Egypt three times on the battlefield, that continues to expand the Jewish settlements on the West Bank, and that is perceived as intransigent on the issue of autonomy for the Palestinian people. If progress is made on that issue when Egyptian President Anwar el Sadat and Prime Minister Begin come to Washington later this month, the Ben-Elissars could find Cairo warming to them. In the meantime, they dine alone. "In Jerusalem I had a wonderful job as the prime minister's confidant, and I led the social life of a king," Ben-Elissar reflects. "I would not have accepted any embassy except this one in Egypt because of the sense of the peace momentum. I am sorry that I have come across this reaction."

Curiously, the Israeli couple have been warmly greeted by the lower echelons of Cairo society—and at the very top. "Really, you are not like other ambassadors here," President Anwar el Sadat gushed when Ben-Elissar presented his credentials. "I shall call you Elijahu. No, on second thought, I shall call you Eli." But at a press conference just a few hours later, Acting Foreign Minister Butros Ghali said that the Israeli embassy was only one of 120 embassies in Cairo, that all were to be treated exactly alike. Cairo high society is apparently following Ghali's cold-shoulder policy toward Ben-Elissar (a policy which was reportedly buttressed by a written directive that Ghali circulated among high government officials). The hostess of the only party to which the Ben-Elissars had been invited was forced to cancel when all 16 guests declined to attend.

But word has not reached the man in the street. Restaurant owners often insist on picking up the tab for Ben-Elissar's meals, and recently, in a small bistro, an Egyptian jumped up from his table to plant kisses on the ambassador's cheeks. "I spoke Hebrew and he spoke Arabic," Ben-Elissar recalls, "and we didn't understand a word the other said. But we understood."

Because the Egyptian-Israeli peace has provoked violent opposition in some parts of the Arab world, both ambassadors must submit to tight security measures. Both say they are unafraid. "I am sure that those who are opposed to my presence here are intelligent people," as the Egyptian ambassador puts it. "They know if Mortada would be killed and disappear from the scene, hundreds of others will rise to replace him. The peace process cannot be stopped anymore by killing one person." Yet the bodyguards serve as a reminder of the hostility that still lies just below the surface, and they cast a pall on the ambassadors' private lives. "One night Eli and I wanted to feel the magic of the Nile, and we decided to take a romantic walk along the shore," Nitza Ben-Elissar recalls. "Three security cars drove alongside us, four bodyguards marched on our heels, and two walked on our two sides."

For Ben-Elissar, social snubs and tight security are small problems compared to the horrors of his past. Born in a Polish ghetto as Elijahu Gottlieb, he might well have perished in a Nazi gas chamber in World War II but for the British authorities in Palestine. The British often exchanged Germans interned in Palestine for Jews living under the Nazis. A friend of Elijahu's mother was the subject of one such exchange, but before she could leave Poland with her family for Palestine two of her children were sent to extermination camps. To save Elijahu, then 10, his mother convinced the woman to take the boy as her own. Orphaned after the war, he grew up with his foster mother in Palestine.

A driven student, Ben-Elissar supported his undergraduate studies at the Sorbonne by working as a doorman in Israel's embassy in Paris and there was recruited by the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad. Later, while pursuing a doctorate in international relations at the University of Geneva, he met Nitza, a teacher from Jerusalem. Both were then married—he to a mathematics teacher, she to a scientist—and both were soon divorced. (They each have a grown child from the first marriage.)

Mortada's early life was easier than Ben-Elissar's, but he has had his share of tragedy. The youngest son of an Egyptian official, he earned a law degree at Cairo University and immediately entered the diplomatic corps. He married his 16-year-old cousin Aliya in 1947, they had a son, Muchssan (now a dentist in Morocco), and Mortada built a distinguished ambassadorial career in Abu Dhabi, Senegal and Morocco. Then three years ago Aliya died suddenly following a heart attack.

His current posting is no doubt his most significant so far. His chief problem in Israel is coping with the stream of requests for visas to Egypt—and juggling the stacks of social invitations that keep pouring in. Ben-Elissar, alas, only wishes he had such problems. Because of the publicity over his predicament in Egypt, Prime Minister Mustapha Khalil recently offered to give a reception in the ambassador's honor. Still, Nitza is not rushing to pull out one of her evening dresses from the closet: The date for their debut in Egyptian society has not yet been set.

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