Al-Ahram Weekly Online   15 - 21 September 2011
Issue No. 1064
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Holding to peace

Both Cairo and Tel Aviv are trying to contain the worst crisis in their relations since signing the 1979 peace treaty. Whether they will succeed is uncertain, reports Doaa El-Bey

Amid tight security, life is back to normal around the Israeli embassy. However, it will take more than such measures or reconciliatory stands from both parties to re-establish balanced accepted Egyptian-Israeli relations. The attack on the Israeli embassy reflected the post-revolution spirit that will not tolerate violence from Israel. The status quo existing during the Mubarak era is a thing of the past.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the government and most political parties condemned the attack on the Israeli embassy. Egypt declared that it would send those who took part in the violence to an emergency state security court and confirmed its commitment to protecting embassies in the country. Some 192 people were arrested in relation to the incident. In addition, the ruling military council reiterated its commitment to signed international agreements, meaning the 1979 peace treaty.

Information Minister Osama Heikal read a government statement on state TV vowing that Egypt is committed to international conventions and the protection of diplomatic missions. The statement came out of an emergency meeting between the ruling council and the government.

Mohamed Bassiouni, a senior diplomat, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the government and security forces did their best to avoid any further escalation of the situation. They managed to save the six members of the Israeli embassy and took them safely out of the embassy. Besides, he added, the government held an emergency meeting and repeated its commitment to protecting international institutions on Egyptian territory.

Most political groups denounced the storming of the Israeli embassy, including those that have long held official positions against Israel and its policies.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu initially stated that the storming of the Israeli mission inflicted a "severe injury to the fabric of peace" between the two countries. Later he tempered his remarks and aides praised and thanked the Egyptian authorities for rescuing six embassy personnel trapped in the embassy.

One day after the ambassador left to Tel Aviv, a top level delegation came from Israel to arrange for the return of the ambassador and the embassy staff, and measures to be taken to ensure their security.

The escalation of anger against Israel was partially blamed on the ruling military council and the government for their slow reactions to the shooting of Egyptian soldiers on the Sinai border last month. The attack left six soldiers dead, the last of which died this week in hospital from his injuries.

A diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity said the slow reaction of the government contributed in further increasing the anger of the people. "The government should have listened to the people and expelled the Israeli ambassador or at least recalled our ambassador in Tel Aviv," he said.

In addition, there were many calls for changing the venue of the Israeli embassy, it being difficult to secure in a busy area overlooking the Giza's University Bridge. These calls fell on deaf ears.

The top-level Israeli delegation that visited Egypt on Sunday also discussed finding another venue for the Israeli embassy.

Bassiouni agreed that changing the location of the embassy would make the job of securing it easier for Egyptian security forces. However, he added, it is a decision to be taken by Tel Aviv, not by Egypt.

The other measure that could ease tensions is to review the 1979 peace treaty. Bassiouni, who was also Egypt ambassador to Tel Aviv during the 1990s, said that it is the right of one or the two parties to request an amendment of the treaty provided that both parties consent to that amendment. He suggested increasing the size of security forces protecting areas B and C in Sinai as a required amendment in order to help Egyptian forces combat dangers in the area.

Egypt had walled off Israel's embassy in Cairo after tensions between the two countries sparked a series of angry protests that reached a climax last month when a demonstrator scaled the building and removed the Israeli flag. It claimed that the goal of building the wall was to protect the lower floors of the building and prevent tensions between protesters and residents.

Last Friday, a large group of demonstrators gathered outside the embassy after separating from a pro-democracy protest in Tahrir Square. Protesters broke down large sections of a security wall surrounding the premises, before entering the building.

The ambassador and the entire embassy staff except for one deputy ambassador were evacuated from Egypt along with their families. Protesters later broke into an office of the embassy tossing Hebrew documents off the balcony to the crowd below. Six Israeli security guards remained stranded in the embassy as angry mobs broke inside. They were finally rescued by Egyptian Special Forces, who smuggled them out of the embassy.

Four civilians died and 1,049 suffered injuries in the violence, according to the Egyptian Health Ministry.

Ousted president Hosni Mubarak was a close ally of the Israelis. Since his fall, ties between the two countries have steadily worsened as Egypt's new military rulers ease off his pro-Israeli policies in the face of their unpopularity with the Egyptian public.

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