The semiofficial Egyptian press, reflecting growing irritation in the government, has abandoned months of enforced restraint and returned to venomous attacks against Israel and Prime Minister Menachem Begin.
A series of strong anti-Israeli editorials and cartoons in government-owned Cairo newspapers and magazines demonstrates -- and is becoming part of -- the increasingly sour atmosphere surrounding Egyptian-Israeli relations since a recent Israeli law declaring all Jerusalem the eternal capital of the Jewish state.
Passage of the law led Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to suspend Palestinian autonomy talks with Israel on Aug. 3 despite U.S. urgings to continue. The law also reinforced the conviction of many Egyptian Foreign Ministry officials that Begin is not acting in good faith in the negotiations.
Against this backdrop, Cairo journalists and cartoonists, known for their wit and always eager to display it, have felt less restraint from their official monitors, who had been enforcing direct orders from Sadat to avoid criticism that the Israelis would judge too personal or caustic.
As a result, the tone of their comments has sharpened considerably, and official complaints from Begin's government have been handed to Egyptian Ambassador Saad Murtada in Israel. Israeli diplomats here regard the press as a faithful if not always precise barometer of official thinking and often relay editorial comment to the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem.
The first Israeli protest was lodged following a cartoon Aug. 7 in the Cairo newspaper Al Gumhuriyah showing Adolph Hitler pinning a swastika on Begin's chest with the comment, "Heil Begin." This was a pun on the infamous Hitlerian greeting and the Arabic word "heil," which translates roughly as "great going." Begin himself was shown carrying a whip beside a banner depicting his policies, such as cracking down on West Bank Palestinians.Behind him was a row of Israelis wearing the Star of David and stretching out their arms in the Nazi salute.
The Israeli protest, reflecting Jewish sensitivities on the Nazi question, demanded an explanation from Sadat's government. So far Begin's government has received no public response other than the standard reply that the press in Egypt is free and therefore does not carry official weight.
But Al Gumhuriyah's editor, Mohsen Mohammed, provided a reply of sorts in a signed editorial yesterday in which he declared that the Jerusalem law has provoked a return to "a propaganda war" and "a new climate that does not express peace and does not achieve it and does not help it."
Then, with a barb aimed at the heart of Jewish sensitivities, he added: "Begin demands an explanation. We will not present an explanation. But we will apologize. We apologize to the late Hitler. Hitler did not kill the desire of the world's people for peace, but made peace a hope and a goal. And Hitler did not kill the desire of the Jews for life, but increased their clinging to it. He is the first one responsible for the rise of the state of Israel because he made every Jew dream of the promised land." o
Simultaneously, the weekly magazine Rose el Yusef published a cartoon depicting Begin as a snake with his tail sitting at the negotiating table while his oversized, horned head, devoured Jerusalem. Even more sober publications, such as the respected Al Ahram, have toughened their language, saying "the whole world" opposes Israel.
These attacks coincide with a series of editorials strongly critical of Begin and Israeli Ambassador Eliahu Ben-Elissar in the weekly magazine October by Anis Mansour, a confidant Sadat often uses to convey news and attitudes he does not want directly associated with his name.
Since the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, Cairo's press has been under official guidance to tread softly where Israel is concerned. Sadat himself called in editors and scolded them personally last winter for criticism he judged too pointed for the good relations he hoped to build with Israel. Now the atmosphere has changed.
Reports from Jerusalem said Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir called in Murtada again yesterday to protest about the Gumhuriyah editorial, complaining that the Egyptian public apparently does not understand the "size and essence" of the Holocaust.
Ben-Elissar also is reported to have remarked that the editorials apparently are written with less poisonous intentions than Israelis tend to read into them because of Egyptians' lack of experience with the extreme sensitivity among Israeli Jews over any reference to Hitler and his World War II massacres.