Diplomats scrambled to avert a crisis in relations between Egypt and Israel on Saturday, and the Israeli government issued a rare statement of regret for the killing of three Egyptian security officers by an Israeli warplane.
Tensions between the two countries, which on Saturday led Egypt to announce that it would recall its ambassador from Tel Aviv, reached the worst point since the Camp David peace accords three decades ago, spurred by a burst of violence along their shared border in the Sinai Peninsula. A series of attacks there killed eight Israelis on Thursday; the Israeli government then retaliated against Gaza-based militants, and the three Egyptians died in the crossfire.
After Egypt’s announcement about its ambassador early Saturday, diplomats from other nations rushed to broker an end to the impasse between the Egyptians and the Israelis, a Western diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the talks. Later, the statement disappeared from an Egyptian cabinet Web site, and unidentified officials suggested in the Egyptian media that it might have been released by mistake.
Then, breaking a customary silence on the Sabbath, the Israeli defense minister, Ehud Barak, released a statement saying, “We regret the deaths of members of the Egyptian security forces during the terror attack on the Israeli-Egyptian border.”
Mr. Barak, who had seemed on Thursday to blame lax Egyptian security for allowing the attacks near the border, said that after an internal inquiry, an Israeli-Egyptian committee would investigate. And he went on to note the importance of the peace treaty with Egypt and his admiration for the judgment and responsibility of the Egyptian people.
In Egypt, not enough
Late Saturday, Egypt welcomed the Israeli statement but said it was not enough, The Associated Press reported. Still, the government reaffirmed its commitment to peace.
Thousands of protesters demonstrated for a second night outside the Israeli Embassy on Saturday, demanding the expulsion of the ambassador. One climbed up the building and took down the Israeli flag, drawing cheers from the crowd.
The crisis has been the sharpest signal yet that the revolution that toppled President Hosni Mubarak in February is transforming the three-decade-old relationship between Egypt and Israel that has been the cornerstone of Middle Eastern politics.
By removing Mr. Mubarak’s authoritarian but dependably loyal government, the revolution has stripped away a bulwark of Israel’s position in the region, unleashing the Egyptian public’s pent-up anger at Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians at a time when a transitional government is scrambling to maintain its own legitimacy in the streets.
Mohamed Bassiouni, a former Egyptian ambassador to Israel, called the episode a lesson to Israel about the new politics of a more democratic Egypt, where the ruling military council and aspiring political candidates are eager to stay in step.
“It is very important, because you see public opinion in Egypt,” Mr. Bassiouni said.
He added: “The Egyptians do not accept what has happened, and it means that Israel should take care. If they continue their behavior toward the Palestinians and the peace process, it means that the situation will escalate more.”
Israeli officials said they had not gotten any direct message from Egypt about the decision and learned of it only from the cabinet’s announcement. “We have been holding internal consultations in order to determine how to proceed,” said Yigal Palmor, the spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry.
At least one Israeli military officer has acknowledged that the Egyptian officers may have been killed accidentally by Israeli fire. Until Saturday afternoon, however, Israeli officials would address the question only anonymously, and some privately expressed resentment at taking the blame for a problem they said originated in Egypt. Israeli officials have said they believe the militants who carried out the attacks had come across the Egyptian border from the Egyptian Sinai, and on Saturday the officials asserted that some of the attackers had worn Egyptian uniforms as well.
“The feeling is that all of this should not have happened,” said one official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the tense situation. “Now we have to take the heat, as if we were responsible for the attack.”
No harm intended
Amos Gilad, a senior Israeli Ministry of Defense official who has been closely involved in Israel-Egypt relations, told Israel Radio on Saturday that nobody on the Israeli side had any intention of harming the Egyptian security forces and that it was necessary to wait for the inquiry to be completed.
Israelis have complained for months that Egypt’s transitional government has failed to restore security on its side of the shared border in the Sinai Peninsula, allowing a series of five unexplained bombings to disrupt the flow of natural gas to Israel that is crucial to its energy supply. The Egyptian police have all but completely withdrawn from the Bedouin-dominated northern Sinai since the revolution, and in recent days the Egyptian military had been carrying out its own operations there to try to crack down on militants.
The Camp David accords limit the Egyptian military presence in the border area, so the government had sought and received Israeli permission to send 1,000 additional troops there.
Diplomats were treating the Israeli statement of regret and pledge of a joint investigation as extraordinary, because Israel has been famously reluctant to accede to such demands.
For many in Israel, the episode has heightened anxiety about the future of the 30-year peace that has weathered Israel’s wars in Lebanon and Gaza as well as two Palestinian uprisings.
“There are people in Egypt who would like to push the ruling military council in Cairo to sever relations with Israel,” said Shlomo Avineri, a political scientist at Hebrew University and onetime director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, “and we should do everything possible to avoid further confrontation and deterioration.”
This article, "Nations Race to Defuse Crisis Between Egypt and Israel," first appeared in The New York Times.