"We're acting in good faith, but Israel is losing credibility," says Foreign Ministry spokesman Zaki.
By BRENDA GAZZAR, HERB KEINON
Egypt offered harsh words of criticism on Thursday for Jerusalem's handling of the cease-fire negotiations that Cairo is brokering between Israel and Hamas, warning that "Israel is undermining its credibility" and that its behavior is harming the countries' relationship.
After a meeting of the security cabinet on Wednesday, the government declared that it would not fully open the Gaza Strip's borders until Hamas freed kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Schalit.
Opening the crossings is one of Hamas's main conditions for a cease-fire agreement with Israel.
The demand to include Schalit in any deal was a blow to Egyptian mediation efforts and would "hinder any chances for a cease-fire," Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki said.
"Up until the last moment, the Israeli envoy [the Defense Ministry's Amos Gilad]... denied that [Schalit's release] was a new condition," Zaki told The Jerusalem Post. "But then we found out it was a new condition. They changed their position... In the end it was clear that the cabinet had taken a decision about it."
"Certainly, it is undermining the credibility of the Israeli side," he said. "It's disappointing to say the least, because we have embarked on these efforts in good faith and we were always under the impression that the Israeli side was interested and fully aware of the details that were discussed."
While Egypt believed its efforts were for a good cause and that civilians on both sides would benefit, "it is clear this is a major complication and the way it was communicated was really unacceptable," Zaki said. "It was far from being professional."
Another Egyptian official confirmed Thursday that the country had decided to recall a commercial delegation from a routine visit to Jerusalem.
Prime Minister's Office spokesman Mark Regev defended Israel's actions on Thursday, saying that "Gilad Schalit has always been a top priority for the government of Israel" since he was kidnapped in June 2006.
"In the previous tahadiyeh [cease-fire] arrangements that were negotiated through Egypt [in June], it was promised that there would be movement on the issue of Gilad Schalit," Regev said. "That was part of the understanding."
Earlier Thursday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert rejected as political posturing accusations that the rejection of any formal cease-fire with Hamas and insistence on a prisoner swap for Schalit was damaging Jerusalem's relationship with Cairo.
"I have no intention of getting into arguments with political officials who strike a pose of caring for security," the prime minister said. "Those who spread rumors regarding our relationship with the Egyptians are spewing baseless drivel. We maintain daily contact with Egypt."
On Wednesday, Olmert said accusations that Israel had pulled out of an already finalized cease-fire agreement were untrue.
"We didn't give Egypt any agreement or framework for a deal from which we have suddenly withdrawn," he said. "I understand that there is some debate now over the goals of [Operation Cast Lead], but a [cease-fire] deal was not one of them."
He also read out a number of quotes from a document agreed upon with the Egyptians in June regarding the last Gaza cease-fire. One was a statement that without Schalit's release, a truce with Hamas could not be maintained.
We said this unequivocally and it was clear to our Egyptian partners," the prime minister said. "There is no reason for Israel to act now as though it has lost every shred of self-respect and submit to Hamas's terms."
Olmert was likely responding to quotes attributed to Gilad, the Defense Ministry's diplomatic-military bureau chief, in Wednesday's Ma'ariv.
According to the paper, Gilad said he did not understand the current policy change linking Schalit's release to a Gaza cease-fire.
"I don't understand what they are trying to do," Gilad was quoted as saying by an undisclosed third party. "Insult the Egyptians? We've already done that. This is insanity, simply insanity. Egypt remains almost our last ally here. For what? We are harming national security.
"The Egyptians are exhibiting great courage," Gilad said in response to criticism that had been directed at him and Defense Minister Ehud Barak from the Prime Minister's Office, to the effect that Gilad had been acting independently with the Egyptians and was dragging Olmert into a cease-fire agreement he did not want. Gilad denied the allegations, saying that everything he did was recorded and sent to Olmert.
As for Israeli-Egyptian relations, Zaki said Thursday that "certainly, [Israel's handling of the situation] will have some effect for obvious reasons and not really positive."
Regev responded by saying that Olmert had made it a point at Wednesday's cabinet meeting to praise Egypt's efforts to broker a cease-fire and to free Schalit. Egypt, Regev said, was a partner in Israel's efforts to strengthen stability.
"The peace between Israel and Egypt is a cornerstone of our strategic thinking," he said.
AP and Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report
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