Israel will continue to adhere to the peace treaty with Egypt, which serves the interest of both countries, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said on Saturday night, at the end of a dramatic 24-hours during which an Egyptian mob laid siege to Israel’s embassy in Cairo.
All of Israel’s emissaries to Cairo – including six security guards who were holed up behind a metal door in the embassy and extracted by Egyptian commandos – returned to Israel on Saturday, with the exception of one diplomat who will remain to represent Israel in the Egyptian capital.
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Netanyahu, in a televised announcement on Saturday night, offered a special thank you to US President Barack Obama who “said he would do everything he could” to extricate the six security guards, “and did.”
“He used all the means and influence of the US, which are significant, and I think we owe him a special thank you. This testifies to the strong alliance between Israel and the US. This alliance is critical, especially during these days of great storms buffeting the Middle East,” the prime minister said.
He also gave credit to the Egyptian commandos, who entered the building and rescued the six security guards – who were disguised wearing keffiyehs – from the building.
“Their intervention,” Netanyahu said of the Egyptian commandos, “prevented a tragedy. We were in contact with the Egyptian government throughout the night, and I think it was clear to all that protection of embassies in general – and the Israeli Embassy in particular – is an integral part of a sovereign government’s job.”
The saga began on Friday at 6:30 p.m., when a mob that reportedly numbered some 5,000 people congregated outside the building that houses the embassy, which was closed at the time, but which was being guarded inside by the six security guards.
The crowd started demolishing the wall that was erected recently around the building, and by 12:30 a.m. made it into the embassy where they broke into the consular section and the embassy’s archive, setting fires and breaking windows. With the Arab television networks filming, the Israeli flag was once again pulled down and set aflame, to cheers from the throng below.
The embassy is housed on the 16th-19th floors of the building.
Vandals used both the stairway and the elevators to enter the offices, while others jumped onto the balcony of the embassy from nearby buildings. Anti-Israel graffiti was sprayed throughout the offices.
The Foreign Ministry’s emergency procedures were activated, and Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) head Yoram Cohen went there to follow the situation, in telephone consultation with the director of the Mossad and Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz. They were watching the developments both via the Arab networks’ live feed, and a security camera inside the embassy.
Almost immediately the decision was made to dispatch a plane to Cairo and evacuate all members of the diplomatic staff and their families, except for the No. 2 at the embassy who would stay on.
According to various reports, Netanyahu was unable to speak immediately to the head of the Egyptian transitional government, Mohammad Tantawi, although contact was established with other officials with whom he spoke three times. He was able, however, to reach Obama, who said he would do everything possible to help evacuate the trapped Israelis, and to get the Egyptians to protect the embassy.
Barak also spoke to his US counterpart, Leon Panetta, who was involved in pressing the Egyptians to take action.
Some 13 hours after the drama began, the security guards were hustled out of the building by plainclothes Egyptian commandos who went into the building as part of the mob. The six Israelis were taken to the airport, and then immediately flown home.
Eighty other Israelis flew home earlier.
Netanyahu, in his statement Saturday night, said that Israel was working together with the Egyptian government to return an ambassador to Cairo as soon as the security measures needed to protect him and his staff were in place.
The prime minister voiced appreciation to the Egyptian information minister who condemned the attack, and said that many other world leaders also condemned the incident.
The US, France, Great Britain and Germany were among the countries that sharply condemned the attack. In the Arab world, Bahrain’s foreign minister, Sheikh Haled bin Ahmad bin Muhammad al-Halifa, also condemned it, writing on Twitter that “the failure to defend the embassy building is a blatant violation of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.”
“The Middle East is going through a historic earthquake. Maybe we can compare it to what happened almost 100 years ago at the end of World War I,” Netanyahu said. “Facing these huge changes we have to act coolly, reasonably and responsibly, and we have to understand that the things are happening because of strong undercurrents.”
During these volatile times, he added, it was essential for Israel to
maintain its security, which he termed the “anchor of our existence here
– and especially in an uncertain era.”
He pledged that Israel would continue to preserve the peace with Egypt,
try to prevent a further deterioration of ties with Turkey, and
“continue to work toward peace with the Palestinians.
To that end there is a need to return as quickly as possible to direct
negotiations, because that is the only way possible to promote and
Netanyahu said that in light of what was happening in the region, many
more people in the country and the world “understand much better our
justified determination to safeguard Israel’s security needs in any
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