Hours after the President's Office announced on Tuesday that President Shimon Peres received a letter of goodwill from his Egyptian counterpart Mohammed Morsi, a spokesman for Morsi sharply rejected the announcement.
In the letter, which was sent via Egyptian Ambassador to Israel Yasser Reda to Peres' military secretary, Col. Hasson Hasson, Morsi apparently writes in English, “It was with deep thanks that I received your congratulations on the advent of the Holy Month of Ramadan. I take this opportunity to reiterate that I am looking forward to exerting our best efforts to get the Middle East peace process back to its right track in order to achieve security and stability for all peoples of the region, including the Israeli people.”
The Israeli president's name was spelled "Perez."
The President's Office said the letter comes after Peres previously sent two letters to Morsi: the first congratulating him on his election as president, and the second sent on the occasion of the start of Ramadan.
An official in Peres' office — speaking anonymously because the issue concerned sensitive diplomatic relations between the two countries — said the president's aides received the official communique Tuesday from the Egyptian ambassador to Israel, both by registered mail and by fax from the embassy in Tel Aviv.
Peres' office asked the Egyptian ambassador if it could publicize the letter or if it should be kept secret, the official said. The Egyptian envoy phoned Morsi's office to inquire, the official said, and then told Peres' aides that Morsi's staff had given the green light to make the letter public.
Peres' office sent reporters a copy of what was said to be the faxed letter. The top of the letter featured a time stamp with Tuesday's date, the phone number from which the fax was sent, and the label "EGY EMB TEL AVIV."
The fax number, which appeared to be printed automatically from the machine that sent the message, was a number listed on Israel's Foreign Ministry website as belonging to the Egyptian Embassy in Israel.
Shortly after reports emerged that Peres received a letter from Morsi, senior Egyptian officials who seemed baffled by the move began playing down any enthusiasm that had arisen over a possible warming of relations with Jerusalem.
Morsi's spokesman, Yasser Ali, even vehemently denied that the Egyptian president sent a letter to Peres. "Reports in the Israeli media are based on lies and are just incorrect," he said. "President Morsi did not send any letter to the Israeli president."
Ali blamed two Israeli newspapers for manufacturing the letter — though it was released by the President's Office.
The Egyptian Foreign Ministry did not provide an immediate response on the issue.
The President's Residence in Jerusalem was not moved by the Egyptian denial and stated that a letter was indeed sent by Morsi.
Peres' closest advisers said the denial was issued after the letter received extensive exposure in the media, something which may not have been consistent with Egyptian interests.
Peres' office said the letter was a routine communique.
It also said that once the Egyptians realized that the sympathetic letter could be interpreted as a sign of weakness, officials decided to deny the existence of the letter, even though Morsi's bureau approved it.
The spat underlined the touchy nature of Egyptian-Israeli relations, always frosty but now especially sensitive in the wake of Muslim Brotherhood victories in Egyptian elections.
It also appeared to show some disarray in the fractured Egyptian government.
Though Morsi has taken office, it is still not clear what his powers are. The military council that took over after longtime President Hosni Mubarak was ousted last year assumed some presidential powers.
Also, the Brotherhood-dominated parliament has been dissolved, the military-appointed cabinet is still in office, and the ministries and foreign service are mostly still in the hands of the old regime.
The disarray has led to conflicts, misunderstandings and power plays.
All that is in addition to the already complicated relations between Israel and Egypt. The two signed a peace treaty in 1979 but have rarely been close.
Morsi has pledged to respect Egypt's international treaties, but the Brotherhood has said it may need to make adjustments to the Israel-Egypt peace agreement. The movement historically has been hostile to Israel.