Israel tries to keep Egypt as an ally in changing Arab world

The Sinai killings are another troubling turn in Israel's relations with Egypt since Hosni Mubarak stepped down in February. Israeli officials are rushing to appease Cairo after five Egyptians officers were killed.

JERUSALEM // Already uneasy about the upheaval that has swept the Arab world this year, Israel faces a diplomatic crisis with an ally it can ill-afford to alienate further - Egypt.

Cairo threatened to recall its ambassador from Tel Aviv after Israeli forces killed five Egyptian security officers on Friday while pursuing the militants who carried out the deadly assault in southern Israel a day earlier.

The cross-border raid touched on a central pillar of Israel's regional policy - its 1979 peace agreement with Egypt. Calling the incursion on its territory a breach of the accord, Egypt demanded an apology and said it would withdraw its ambassador from Tel Aviv.

The Sinai attacks prompted renewed fighting between Israel and Hamas. But last night, a Hamas official in Gaza said that all of Gaza's militant groups have agreed to a ceasefire aimed at ending a three-day round of violence with Israel.

The uneasy quiet did not overshadow yet another troubling turn in Israel's relations with Egypt since the removal of its former president, Hosni Mubarak, in February. In the wake of the border shootings on Friday, Israeli officials rushed to appease Cairo.

Israel's defence minister, Ehud Barak, expressed "regret" for the killings and called for a joint Egyptian-Israeli investigation into the incident. He emphasised that the "Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty has great importance and much strategic value for the stability of the Middle East".

It was unclear yesterday whether Egypt had actually withdrawn its ambassador from Israel, but the military government nonetheless reacted coolly to Mr Barak's conciliatory words, warning that it "does not fit with the weight of the incident and the state of Egyptians' outrage from the Israeli actions". "Egyptian blood is not cheap and the government will not accept that Egyptian blood gets shed for nothing," the government said.

The incident represents another diplomatic setback for Israel, which this month, refused a request by the US to apologise to Turkey over a military raid on an aid ship last year in which nine Turks were killed.

That decision has further undermined ties with Ankara - once considered a firm Israeli ally - and may have also emboldened Cairo's sharp reaction, according to analysts.

Uzi Rabi, the director of Tel Aviv's Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern studies, described it as a situation where "Egypt is trying to re-educate Israel and is following the same line as the Turkish foreign policy". He said: "Israel needs to learn that it is facing a different Middle East."

That was a reference to the revolutionary upheaval that had spread in the region. Israel had depended on support Mr Mubarak. Even though the former leader maintained a so-called "cold peace" with Israel, his support - often at the expense of popular opinion - still proved crucial in upholding Israel's blockade on the Gaza Strip.

Amid a hamstrung peace process, the Palestinians, too, were opting out of bilateral diplomacy with Israel for statehood recognition at the United Nations in September. The move has been described by Mr Barak as potentially unleashing a diplomatic "tsunami" on Israel, which in turn has deployed a counter-offensive to erode Palestinian support.

The Palestinians' UN bid was expected to receive backing from Lebanon, which in September would temporarily hold the presidency of the Security Council. On Friday, Beirut's representative to the Security Council thwarted a proposed statement that would have condemned Thursday's attack in Israel that killed eight and wounded more than 40.

Lebanon dismissed it for failing to include a condemnation of Israel's continuing military assault on the Gaza Strip, where Tel Aviv said Thursday's attackers originated.

Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian political analyst who lives in Jerusalem and Amman, Jordan, believed such support was part of broader regional change that was depriving Israel of much of its influence. "I think the issue here is that Israel can no longer depend on a select number of pro-western leaders, or dictators if you will, that can be bribed one way or another for support," he said.

This would affect the power of its potent military, he said. "I think the days of Israeli military hegemony are over. It can no longer simply cross international borders or enter international waters with impunity."

"People power," Mr Kuttab said, "has really made a big difference."

That sort of power has been displayed in Egypt, where rallies staged outside Israel's Egyptian embassy have seen crowds burn Israeli flags.

One protester, Ahmed El Shehata, scaled several levels of the building and replaced the Israeli flag with an Egyptian one.

With national elections looming, politicians have not lost the opportunity to pander.

Hamdi Sabahi, an Egyptian presidential candidate, issued a statement praising Mr Shehata "who burned the Zionist flag that spoiled the Egyptian air for 30 years".

Amr Moussa, a former Egyptian foreign minister and presidential candidate, also weighed in with a firm critique posted on Twitter.

"Israel must be aware that the days when it kills our children without getting a strong, appropriate response are gone for ever," he wrote.

* With additional reporting by Reuters

Published: August 22, 2011 04:00 AM


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