PM pushes to reopen embassy in Cairo without delay

J’lem worried the longer Egypt without envoy, stronger opposition will be to his return; Netanyahu meets with Yonatan, head of rescued guards.

By
September 12, 2011 04:44
4 minute read.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu 311. (photo credit: Moshe Milner/GPO)

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu made clear Sunday that despite the weekend’s ransacking of Israel’s embassy in Cairo, the government wants to return the ambassador and his staff to Cairo as soon as possible.

Senior diplomatic officials indicated that the reason Israel wanted to see the embassy reopened so soon after the Friday and Saturday siege of the embassy was a concern that the longer the return was delayed, the louder would be the voices in Egypt calling for the authorities there to bar the ambassador’s return.

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There are already many in Egypt calling to follow the lead of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who will be visiting Cairo on Monday, and expel the Israeli ambassador.

Netanyahu told the cabinet at its weekly meeting on Sunday, “We are in contact with the Egyptian government regarding the necessary procedures for returning our ambassador so that he and his staff will be properly secured, so that they might continue to maintain Israel’s representation in Cairo.”

The Egyptian newspaper Al- Masry Al-Youm reported that a high-level Israeli delegation consisting of four “security and political figures” arrived in Cairo on Sunday on a private jet and held talks with Egyptian officials. This report fueled speculation that one of the issues being discussed was the return of Ambassador Yitzhak Levanon, who along with some 80 other Israelis – diplomats, their families and businessmen – were flown out of the country on Saturday.

Diplomatic officials said the government was in touch with Egyptian security officials about better securing the existing embassy building, rather than looking for a new location – something that would take quite a bit of time. Israel is not interested in waiting that long, one official said.

In the meantime, the official added, the No. 2 diplomat in the embassy is continuing to represent Israel from an unspecified “safe” location in the city.

Israel did not want to remove him as well on Saturday because of the bad precedent that would be set if Israel was left completely unrepresented in Egypt.

Netanyahu, in the cabinet meeting, said the embassy symbolizes the “peace between us and Egypt. This peace is being challenged and those who challenge it are challenging not only policy, but also the country known as Israel.”

Netanyahu said that those who tore down Israel’s flag in Cairo deny both the peace and “the country.”

“I am pleased that there are other forces in Egypt, beginning with the Egyptian government,” he said. “There are also other voices that want to continue advancing the peace.”

Netanyahu, who after the cabinet meeting met Yonatan, the head of the embassy’s security detail who was holed up in an inner room in the embassy with five other guards, again praised their actions.

At his meeting with Likud ministers before the cabinet session, Netanyahu poured more light on the incident, saying that only a heavy metal door separated the embassy guards from the frenzied mob that had broken into the offices.

At one time, the prime minister said, there was discussion with Yonatan and the Egyptian officials about evacuating the guards to the roof of the building, and then whisking them away from the mob. That plan was scuttled, however, when it became clear that there were some 50 rioters on the roof.

At a certain point, the Likud ministers were told, one of the guards went to the window and shot in the air, forcing those on the roof to the other side of the building.

Diplomatic sources said that eventually, and with the active intervention of US President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, the Egyptian commandos were activated, cleared the offices of the mob and were able to get the guards out safely.

“Our people acted exceptionally,” Netanyahu said. “I commend Yonatan and his friends. They acted with equanimity and, at a certain stage, in very close coordination with the command center [in Jerusalem], the Foreign Ministry security personnel and with the commander on the ground in Egypt, after we established this connection. I must also note the actions of US President Barack Obama, who became involved at a critical time in order to use America’s influence on the issue.”

According to Israeli officials, the Americans “played a crucial role, and were instrumental in conveying to the Egyptians the importance of moving swiftly and decisively.”

Netanyahu, in his meeting with Yonatan, his wife and parents, said that “I felt as if I was your father and I needed to get you and the others out of there. We were very close to a horrible tragedy.” He added that only one door separated them from the mob, and Israel from a “strategic crisis” with Egypt.

Yonatan’s wife, Hofit, told the prime minister that she became concerned when she received a phone text message from her husband saying “‘I love you.’ I understood something wasn’t right. Until I saw him back in Israel, I didn’t believe that everything would be all right.”

The security guard’s mother told Netanyahu that on Wednesday Yonatan will celebrate his 30th birthday.

“You gave him the best present – life,” she said.


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