(photo credit: IDF [file])
Egypt has worked to thwart Israel diplomatically in various international forums for years, so Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit's recent threat to turn up the diplomatic heat on Israel is nothing new, Israeli officials said Tuesday.
Egypt's foreign minister warned in a television interview earlier this week that Cairo would "retaliate" diplomatically against Israel if its complaints against Egyptian inaction on arms smuggling into Gaza hurt US-Egyptian ties.
"If they [Israelis] continue to push and affect US-Egyptian relations and harm Egyptian interests, Egypt will certainly retaliate and will harm their interests," Gheit said. "We have claws capable of retaliating in all directions and through diplomacy." He did not elaborate.
But according to Israeli officials, Egypt has worked against Israel diplomatically for years via numerous channels.
For instance, one official said, Egypt originally led the bloc of countries at the UN General Assembly last month that tried to prevent Israel's resolution on the development and transfer of agricultural technologies - the first Israeli resolution ever adopted by the world body - from being accepted.
"At the end, the Egyptians had no choice but to abstain in the vote, when they saw that so many others supported it, but they tried to block it at first," the official said. The resolution passed by a vote of 118 in favor and 29 abstentions.
The official said Egypt's motive in trying to stymie that resolution had been "to show us who is boss," and to demonstrate that while Israel succeeded in getting certain things accomplished in the Security Council because of US support, "Egypt can beat us on other playing fields."
The official said that another example of Egyptian efforts to block Israeli interests was evident in the 2005 quadrennial Mediterranean Games, an Olympic-style sporting event that includes all the countries that border the Mediterranean Sea - except for Israel.
The official said that Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos had tried to get an invitation to those games held in Almeria, Spain, for both Israel and the Palestinian Authority, but that the Egyptians had effectively blocked the move.
"The Egyptians are interested in limiting us, not letting us feel that we are off the hook," the official said. "The Egyptians don't want us to feel that there is no longer pressure on us, so that we don't stop dealing with the Palestinians."
With diplomatic friction between Egypt and Israel at a high level, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in the New Year's interview with The Jerusalem Post that will be published in its entirety on Friday, tried to defuse the issue and said the peace treaty with Egypt was a "historic turning point."
"Egypt has a peace agreement with us, and I think that with all the difficulties in the relations, they are very satisfied with the agreement and want to preserve it," he said. "That's not to say that everything they don't do, or do do, is to our liking; and I imagine they have some criticism of us. But there is a continuing dialogue."
Olmert said he was thankful for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's leadership, saying, "When I even think of how things would be if we were dealing with people other than Mubarak, well, I pray every day for his well-being and good health."
The current tension between Jerusalem and Cairo, meanwhile, is being exacerbated by the haj pilgrims waiting on the Egyptian border to get back into the Gaza Strip.
A senior Hamas official among thousands of the Palestinian pilgrims stranded in Egypt threatened Tuesday that the group would begin a hunger strike unless they were allowed to return to the Gaza Strip through a border crossing not controlled by Israel.
Ayman Taha's threat came a day after some of the pilgrims housed in temporary shelters in northern Sinai burned mattresses and broke windows in protest of Egypt's refusal to let them enter Gaza through the Rafah crossing. A Palestinian woman died of a heart attack during the protests.
Hamas officials among the more than 3,000 pilgrims who recently completed the haj in Saudi Arabia fear they will be arrested if they return through the Israeli-controlled entrance at Kerem Shalom.
Taha said Tuesday that he has been negotiating with Egyptian officials, who he claimed have finally agreed to let the Palestinians through the Rafah Crossing.
"We received promises from the Egyptians that they are letting us through Rafah. Otherwise, we will start a hunger strike," he said.
Israel fears that if the pilgrims return via the Rafah Crossing, Hamas activists could smuggle millions of dollars to the organization.
The standoff began Saturday when the pilgrims arrived by ferry from Jordan, landing in the Egyptian port of Nuweiba.
Most of the pilgrims are believed to be ordinary citizens, but there are at least 10 well-known Hamas figures among them, including Taha and Khalil al-Haya.
On Sunday, the Egyptian government bused
more than more than 1,000 of the pilgrims from Nuweiba to 11 shelters near the northern Sinai town of el-Arish, to house them until the crisis is resolved. Taha said Tuesday that the 2,000 still in Nuweiba would make the journey the following day.
An Israeli defense official, meanwhile, said some 200 of the stranded returnees had crossed back to their homes through Kerem Shalom, and more were expected to follow.