Jerusalem and Cairo play down gas crisis

Liberman: Egypt may become bigger threat than Iran; Egyptian minister says contract can be renegotiated.

Egypt gas pipeline blast 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Egypt gas pipeline blast 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
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.”
The Egyptian Foreign Ministry issued a statement Monday saying its ambassador to Israel, Yasser Reda, would seek clarification of Liberman’s comments.
Reda met Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon on Monday, but diplomatic officials would not say whether this issue arose.
Liberman 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 commercial disagreement.
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 company.”
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 score.”
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 considerations.”
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.”
State media generally toed what appeared to be Cairo’s official line.
Appearing 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 received.
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.
Egypt’s presidential 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 international treaties.
Writing on the Al-Arabiya website Monday, Cairo-based columnist Ayman Qenawi said he struggled to believe the row was not politically motivated.
“This could not have been possibly decided without a crystal-clear go-ahead from the ruling Supreme Council of Armed Forces,” he wrote.
“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 can tell.”
Reuters contributed to this report.