Israel on Saturday issued an apology to Egypt, expressing its regret at the killing of five Egyptian troops in an incident involving Israeli forces who chased Palestinian terrorists fleeing back into the Sinai after carrying out Thursday's deadly terror attacks near Eilat.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday ordered that an apology be issued to Egypt in an attempt to calm growing tension that has developed between Egypt and Israel over the deaths of the Egyptian soldiers.
The diplomatic fallout with Egypt began Friday, when Egyptian officials claimed the soldiers were killed by Israel Defense Forces soldiers and demanded an apology and an investigation. Cairo also demanded an apology for statements made earlier by Defense Minister Ehud Barak and other Israeli officials about Egypt's increasing lack of control over the Sinai Peninsula.
In a telephone conversation between Netanyahu, Barak, and Foreign Minister Avigdor Leiberman, the three decided to act swiftly to end the tension developing between the two countries. Israel's acting ambassador in Cairo, Shalom Cohen, personally hand-delivered the statement to the Egyptian Foreign Ministry expressing Israel's regret for the killings. The statement included an apology and confirmation of a joint Israeli-Egyptian team established to investigate the events that led to the deaths of the Egyptian policemen.
In a statement released to the media on Saturday, Barak noted the importance of the peace treaty with Egypt and his appreciation for the reasonableness and responsibility that Egypt has demonstrated. Barak stated: "We regret the deaths of members of the Egyptian security forces during the terror attack on the Israeli-Egyptian border." The Minister of Defense has ordered an IDF investigation, followed by a joint examination with the Egyptian military, to examine the circumstances of the event. The appropriate conclusions will be reached following the investigation. Barak stated, "the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty has great importance and much strategic value for the stability of the Middle East."
Officials in Jerusalem pointed out that Barak did not exactly take responsibility for the deaths of the Egyptians, since it is too early to know if it was IDF gunfire that killed them. But, the officials stressed, that setting up a joint probe of the incident was in step with the peace treaty between the two countries.
The officials expressed concern that the Egyptians may try to re-negotiate certain clauses of the peace treaty signed by the two countries in 1979, such as a clause that deals with the amount and type of Egyptian military forces in the Sinai. According to the 1979 treaty, the Sinai Peninsula was to be a demilitarized buffer zone between the countries.
Even Amos Gilad, the Defense Ministry's Political-Security Bureau director, a regular go-between for the Israeli government and Egyptian authorities, said that an apology was not offered to Egypt. "We conveyed our sadness over the deaths of the Egyptian policemen, but we didn't apologize. At this point, it is not clear what happened there, and we need to investigate the incident further," Gilad said.
On Friday, Egypt's interim government decided to recall its ambassador to Israel, Yasser Reda, in response to the deaths of the policemen. A statement issued by the Egyptian government said: "The Egyptian ambassador to Israel will be recalled until the results of an investigation by Israeli authorities are published, and until we receive an apology from Israel over the unfortunate remarks about Egypt."
However, following intense diplomatic activity by the U.S., Israel and France on Saturday, Egypt's Supreme Military Council, which has effectively ruled Egypt since the removal of Hosni Mubarak, decided to withdraw the threat of recalling Reda.
Upon receipt of the Israeli expression of remorse and commitment to investigate the incident, Egypt decided to keep its ambassador in Israel for now, which prompted Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon to declare: "The crisis is over."
Meanwhile, demonstrations broke out near the Israeli Embassy in Cairo on Saturday, during which demonstrators held Palestinian flags and called for the removal of the Israeli ambassador. Due to the demonstrations, Israeli Embassy and consulate officials in Cairo and Alexandria chose to remain in their homes fearing for their safety.
Lieberman accused the Palestinian Authority of bearing responsibility for the terrorist attack on Thursday. "The events of the last few days have proved that Palestinian talk of abandoning terror as a means of opposition, and their adoption of diplomatic means instead, is as far from reality as the distance between Ramallah and the U.N. building in New York," Lieberman said.