Israeli military envoy in town, having to deal with a different Egypt

Dina Ezzat , Sunday 21 Aug 2011

It is likely, some say, that Egyptian-Israeli relations will not be upturned by the killing of five Egyptian soldiers last week, but the reaction of the public shows Tel Aviv that there is a new Egypt after Mubarak

Hundreds of Egyptians protested against the deaths of Egyptian security forces killed in a shootout
Hundreds of Egyptians protested against the deaths of Egyptian security forces killed in a shootout between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants on Thursday in the Sinai. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)
A senior Israeli general arrived to Cairo today for talks with Egyptian officials, including senior members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). in an attempt to contain the crisis that erupted over the killing of five Egyptian soldiers on the border with Israel Thursday, while Israeli forces were pursuing alleged militants, according to official Egyptian sources.

"He arrived following telephone calls between Cairo and Tel Aviv yesterday with a message from the Israeli ministry of defense and the office of the prime minister," said one official. Another official said that the "purpose of the visit is to contain the crisis". He added that Israel was not expecting such widespread anger on the part of Egyptians.

The killing of the Egyptian soldiers Thursday is not an incident without precedent. During the past five years there were a number similar incidents reported and others that went unreported. However, according to Egyptian officials who followed such matters during that time, there was a clear state directive to immediately contain any incident and not report it in the press.

This is the first such incident after the 25 January Revolution, according to one Egyptian official. "The Israelis might not have expected the same reaction as they used to have during the years of (ousted president Hosni) Mubarak, but they certainly did not expect masses of angry Egyptians to surround their embassy in Cairo and to take down the Israeli flag," he said.

A source at the Office of the Prime Minister in Tel Aviv said that Israel is acting to accommodate an Egyptian demand to publicly express regret for the attack and to conduct a prompt investigation. According to this source, Cairo suspended a decision to summon its ambassador in Tel Aviv for consultations scheduled today following a statement from the Israeli ministry of defense expressing "sorrow" over the killing of Egyptian soldiers. He added that Cairo is still expecting a more elaborate position with regards to the investigation.

There are many accounts of what really happened Thursday night on the border between Egypt and Israel, according to different sources. Some suggest that Israel deliberately violated the border to target the soldiers in a sign of anger over what Tel Aviv says is unsatisfactory management of border security on the Egyptian side. Another account suggests the killings were due to an error by Israeli forces during its attack on Gaza. A third account suggests that the killings occurred while Israeli soldiers were pursuing suspected militants into Egyptian territories.

Egypt today is putting emphasis on a joint investigation. It is also demanding a statement from the Office of the Prime Minister in Israel to the effect of commiting to better regulate Israeli operations near the border in the future. "If we get an adequate reaction that we find satisfactory we might reconsider summoning our ambassador. At this point the decision is pending and not cancelled," the same source said.

The US, Egyptian sources say, was influential in trying to contain the crisis. On the one hand, Washington in so many words put onus on Egypt for failing to control the smuggling of weapons and infiltration of individuals from Egyptian territories into Gaza in a way that the US perceives as threatening to Israeli security. This satisfied Tel Aviv. On the other hand, Washington pressed Israel to issue the ministry of defense statement as a kind of accommodation to Cairo.

Meanwhile, potential presidential candidates have all but agreed on the need for a firm position from SCAF towards Israel. Presidential hopefuls Amr Moussa, Hadmine Sabahi and Hesham Bastawissy have called on SCAF to recall the Egyptian ambassador in Tel Aviv. "Whatever happens he has to be recalled, and he needs to go back to Tel Aviv with a clear message that the practices of the past are no longer tolerated by Egypt; it is a matter of dignity," Moussa said in press statements made Friday.

A source at the Egyptian embassy in Tel Aviv said Saturday evening that the ambassador knows he might have to go back to Cairo for consultations, but that no flight booking has been made. Yasser Reda, Egypt's ambassador in Tel Aviv, has not been reachable on his mobile phone, despite several attempts by Ahram Online to contact him.

"At the end of the day the matter will be contained and Egyptian-Israeli relations will resume their regular course in a few weeks. But the events of the past few days will give Israel a clear message that things are changing in Cairo," said a retired Egyptian diplomat who served in Israel. 

He added that during the last few years the political choices of Cairo made Tel Aviv think that Egypt is to be taken for granted. "Now they know that this is no longer the case, despite the continued commitment to the peace treaty that I think would never be shaken, no matter who rules Egypt."

The last time Egypt recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv was during an Israeli attack on Gaza in 2000. "At the time it required Amr Moussa (then the foreign minister) to press very strongly to convince the (ousted) president (Mubarak) to agree to this move," said a former assistant to the foreign minister at the time. He added that Mubarak was always opposed "in principal" to the idea of summoning Egypt's ambassador for consultations. "He believed it rocked the boat and he hated rocking the boat, but now Israel needs to know that if it rocks the boat, Egypt will react with no hesitation; and if this incident goes with a mild reaction from Cairo then you should expect more Israeli violations".

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