Even as officials in both Jerusalem and Cairo on Monday downplayed any
diplomatic significance to Egypt’s cutting off natural gas to Israel, Egypt’s de
facto leader Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi sounded a bellicose note on
another matter, warning that his country would “break the legs” of those
threatening its border.
Tantawi’s comments in Sinai to troops from the
Egyptian Second Army, and appearing on the Aharam website, seemed an angry
response to remarks attributed to Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman that Ma’ariv
carried on Sunday.
That report, which Liberman retweeted on his Twitter
account, quoted him as telling Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu that Egypt was
a greater threat to Israel than Iran was. Liberman said that in light of the
developments in Egypt – which included the introduction of Egyptian forces into
Sinai to try and regain control there – the IDF needed to rebuild and
significantly increase the Southern Command.
The foreign minister was
quoted as saying that it was conceivable that following the presidential
elections in Egypt, Cairo would renege on the peace agreement. He also said it
was likely the new Egyptian government would search for a “foreign enemy” to
unite the people, with Israel the likely candidate.
Tantawi, in his
speech, said that “we never attack neighboring countries and only protect our
own borders. We will break the legs of anyone who dares to come near to the
borders. That’s why our troops should always be ready.”
Egyptian Foreign Ministry issued a statement Monday saying its ambassador to
Israel, Yasser Reda, would seek clarification of Liberman’s
Reda met Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon on Monday, but
diplomatic officials would not say whether this issue arose.
clarified his comments to a certain degree in an Army Radio interview, saying
that he believed Egypt had an interest in keeping the peace treaty with Israel.
Maintaining that election campaigns often bring out a tough rhetorical line for
domestic consumption, he recommended “waiting another month and a half to see
what will be after the [Egyptian] presidential election, with the hope that
things will return to normal.”
The foreign minister, currently visiting
Azerbaijan, said that Israel was relating to the gas cutoff as a business
dispute and that it would be a mistake to make a diplomatic incident out of a
Netanyahu echoed this message, telling a group
of Israel Bond leaders that Israel did not see the gas cutoff as “something that
is born out of political developments.”
Rather, he said, it was a
“business dispute between the Israeli company and the Egyptian
With that, he said, “I must say that we have gas reserves that
will make Israel totally energy-independent, not only from Egypt, but from any
other source, and which will turn Israel into one of the world’s largest
exporters of natural gas.
So we are quite confident on that
This message was one that top officials in Egypt’s government
repeated throughout the day as well.
Egypt’s oil minister, Abdullah
Ghorab, said the cutoff – which occurred Thursday but was revealed only Sunday –
“does not go beyond a commercial dispute and is not governed by any political
Minister of International Cooperation Faiza Abu el-Naga
said the deal was not necessarily over, and that Israel was welcome to negotiate
a new contract.
Egyptian executives involved in the gas deal also
attributed the dust-up to a business dispute.
Mohamed Shoeib, chairman of
Egypt’s national gas carrier EGAS, told Hayat TV that the company had ended the
deal “because the other party didn’t fulfill its commitments.”
media generally toed what appeared to be Cairo’s official line.
on Channel 1 television, political analyst Mahmud Zahir denied the affair might
endanger the Egypt- Israel peace treaty, according to the international media
aggregator BBC Monitoring.
Zahir said on a morning show Monday that the
termination “could be reversed” at any time if payment were
Coverage in the private media, however, was more strident. A
presenter on the Dream 2 satellite channel described the Israeli reaction as
“hysterical” and “outrageous,” and demanded clarification from Egypt’s ruling
interim military government.
Reflecting popular anger at the deal,
Egyptian presidential candidate Amr Moussa, a former head of the Arab League and
exforeign minister, said ending it was “a natural step in light of information
related to corruption which tarnished this deal.”
Hussein Salem, a
businessman and close associate of deposed president Hosni Mubarak, is a major
shareholder in the Egyptian firm involved in the gas deal. He is now on trial in
absentia facing a range of corruption charges, including some related to
accusations that he squandered funds from the agreement.
A spokesman for
Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which dominates the parliament, said the move was an
“excellent decision” and had nothing to do with the peace treaty. Mahmoud
Ghozlan said Egypt needed more gas for domestic use.
election starts on May 23 and 24, before the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces
finally hands over power by the end of June. Criticism of the peace deal with
Israel is frequently raised during campaign rallies, although the main
candidates and groups such as the Brotherhood say they will respect Egypt’s
Writing on the Al-Arabiya website Monday,
Cairo-based columnist Ayman Qenawi said he struggled to believe the row was not
“This could not have been possibly decided without
a crystal-clear go-ahead from the ruling Supreme Council of Armed Forces,” he
“So, the decision brings the SCAF a much-needed breeze of
popularity and maybe even plaudits for heroism against a country still being
seen by Egyptians as ‘the’ enemy.”
He wondered, “Are the gas deal
termination decision and the expected face-off with Israel and possibly the US a
smokescreen for some unpopular imminent decisions?” Or were they “a publicity
stunt on the part of the unpopular generals before the day of reckoning comes
after handing over power to the new president on June 31? Only the coming days
Reuters contributed to this report.