Gas deal dispute reflects change in Israel-Egypt relations
Ousted President Hosni Mubarak kept close ties with Israel, but the nations’ 1979 peace treaty is less important to Egypt’s new power brokers.
CAIRO — The decorum of diplomacy has devolved into embarrassing headlines and testy one-liners in the increasingly strained relations between Egypt and Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday that Egypt’s Sinai peninsula had become a “kind of Wild West” overrun by militants, terrorists and arms smugglers. Over the weekend, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman had suggested massing more Israeli troops along the border with Egypt.
That drew a bit of mafia parlance from Egypt’s military ruler, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi: “Our borders, especially the northeast ones, are inflamed. We do not attack neighboring countries but will defend our territory. We will break the legs of anyone trying to attack us or who come near the borders.”
Rhetoric for domestic consumption, to be sure, but it symbolizes the changed tenor between the two countries since last year’s revolution, in which Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who kept close ties with Israel, was deposed. Islamists are on the rise in Egypt, and Tantawi is keenly aware that the 1979 Egypt-Israeli peace treaty was never enshrined in the Egyptian soul.
The two sides have been careful not to escalate their language and actions into missteps that could upset the Camp David accords, which led to the treaty. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which controls nearly half of parliament, has expressed commitment to the treaty. But the revolution has unleashed new sentiments and set Egypt on a path to fix what it sees as the sins of the Mubarak era.
One of those was the 2005 agreement to supply Israel with natural gas at a discount, a deal that benefited Mubarak confidant Hussein Salem. Egypt revoked the multibillion-dollar contract this week in a payment dispute with East Mediterranean Gas (EMG), which supplied Israel. Salem, who fled to Spain after the revolution, says he was a partner in EMG until 2008. (Sam Zell, chairman of Tribune Co., parent of the Los Angeles Times, is also a shareholder.)
Egypt and Israel stressed that the row was a business, not a diplomatic, issue. Cairo has offered to renegotiate the contract, but the air is infused with agitation and suspicion.
Pictured: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, tours an area along the border with Egypt last month. On Tuesday, Netanyahu said Egypt’s Sinai peninsula had become a “kind of Wild West” overrun by militants, terrorists and arms smugglers, and over the weekend, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman suggested massing more Israeli troops along the frontier. (Amos Ben Gershom, Israeli Government Press Office / March 27, 2012)