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 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, or EMG, which supplied Israel. Salem says he was a partner in EMG until 2008.
Egypt and Israel stressed that the row was a business, not a diplomatic, issue. Cairo has offered to renegotiate the contract.
The deal, which once accounted for about 40 percent of Israel’s natural gas, was plagued by violence and lack of security in the Sinai. Militants attacked or blew up gas pipelines at least 14 times over the last year, raising fears that Islamic extremism was taking hold. The Egyptian army twice dispatched soldiers to the region; Israel last week warned its citizens vacationing on the peninsula to leave because of possible terrorist threats.
But, on a deeper nationalistic level, the pipeline assaults mirrored the distaste many Egyptians had for the deal and showed how Cairo had grown less receptive to Israeli concerns. The Israelis and EMG blamed Egypt for not stemming the sabotage, which made gas delivery sporadic and caused significant financial damage.