Cairo – Diplomats scrambled to avert a crisis in relations between Egypt and Israel on Saturday, and the Israeli government issued a rare statement of regret for the killing of three Egyptian security officers by an Israeli warplane.
Tensions between the two countries, which at one point on Saturday led Egypt to announce it would recall its ambassador from Tel Aviv, reached the worst point since the historic Camp David peace accords three decades agoafter a burst of violence along their shared border in the Sinai Peninsula. A a series of attacks there killed eight Israelis on Thursday, the government retaliated against Gaza-based militants, and the three Egyptians died in the crossfire.
After Egypt’s announcement early Saturday, diplomats from other nations rushed to broker an end to impasse between the Egyptians and Israelis, a Western diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity because if the delicacy of the ongoing talks. And while the talks went on behind the scenes, the statement disappeared from an Egyptian cabinet web site and unnamed officials suggested in Egyptian news outlets that it may have been released by mistake.
Then, breaking a customary silence on the Sabbath, the office of the Israeli Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, released a statement saying: “Israel regrets the deaths of the Egyptian police officers during the attack on the Israel-Egypt border.”
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Mr. Barak, who on Thursday had appeared to blame lax Egyptian security for allowing the attacks near the border, said that after an internal probe a Israeli-Egyptian committee would investigate the attacks. And he went on to note the importance of the peace treaty with Egypt and his admiration for the judgment and responsibility of the Egyptian people.
After the Israeli reaction, Egyptian state television stopped carrying news of the ambassador’s withdrawal, instead reporting that a diplomatic crisis over the deaths had been averted.
**EGYPTIAN STREET REACTION **
The crisis has been the sharpest signal yet that the revolution that toppled President Hosni Mubarak is transforming the three decade old alliance between Egypt and Israel that has been the cornerstone of the regional political order. By removing Mr. Mubarak’s authoritarian but dependably loyal government, the revolution has stripped away a bulwark of Israel’s position in the region, unleashing the Egyptian public’s pent up anger at Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians at a time when a transitional government is scrambling to maintain its own legitimacy in the Egyptian streets.
Mohamed Bassiouni, a former Egyptian ambassador to Israel, called the episode a lesson to Israel about the new politics of a more democratic Egypt, where the ruling military council and aspiring political candidates are eager to stay in step with the feelings of the street.
“It very important because you see public opinion in Egypt,” said Mohamed Bassiouni, a former Egyptian ambassador to Israel. “The Egyptians do not accept what has happened, and it means that Israel should take care,” he added. “If they continue their behavior toward the Palestinians and the peace process, it means that the situation will escalate more.”
While some Israeli officials say they await the results of an internal investigations, at least one Israeli military commander has accepted the Egyptian account of the killings. After militants killed eight Israelis in three attacks near the Red Sea resort city of Eilat last Thursday, Israel retaliated against Gaza-based militants it blamed for the assaults. An Israeli warplane chasing suspected militants pursued them across the border into Egypt and fired into a group of Egyptian soldiers and police, killing three.
“The feeling is that all of this should not have happened,” said one official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the fraught diplomatic situation. “Now we have to take the heat, as if we were responsible for the attack.”
Amos Gilad, a senior Israeli Ministry of Defense official who has been closely involved in Israel-Egypt relations, told Israel Radio on Saturday that nobody in the Israeli security establishment or the military had any intention of harming the Egyptian security forces and that it was necessary to wait for the completion of the investigation into the events.
Israelis have complained for months that Egypt’s transitional government had failed to restore security on its side of the shared border in the Sinai Peninsula, allowing a series of five unexplained bombings to disrupt the flow of natural gas in a pipeline to Israel that is crucial to its energy supply. Egyptian police have all but completely withdrawn from the Bedouin-dominated North Sinai since the revolution, and in recent days the Egyptian military had been carrying out its own operations there to try to crack down on suspected militants.
The Camp David accords limit the Egyptian military presence in the border area, so the Egyptian government had sought and received Israeli permission to send 1,000 additional troops to carry out the operation.
On the streets of Cairo, a protest outside the Israeli Embassy entered its second day Saturday. With Cairo on a quasi nocturnal schedule for the Ramadan fast, the crowd that numbered a few hundred yesterday afternoon had grown grown to thousands by the time of the dawn prayer. Armored military vehicles stood guard outside as protestors burned a mock Israeli flag and talked of a sit-in to demand the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador. By late afternoon, however, the protest had again dwindled back down to a few hundred demonstrators, surrounded by a heavy deployment of guards.