Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barak, also called his U.S. counterparts during the night to ask them to press the Egyptians to do more to protect the embassy.
“Our assessment was that they had 20 minutes to hold out, and in those 20 minutes the Egyptian commandos would arrive,” Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said in a television interview Saturday. “Those were perhaps the longest minutes.”
In response to the crisis, Egypt’s ruling military council announced a security crackdown Saturday, saying it would make full use of the country’s emergency law to ensure safety. It was a move that exposed the fragility of the new government’s control of the streets.
Under President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s police force kept a tight lid on the population, and improved civil liberties were a key demand for protesters who ousted their leader in February. Since then, much of the police force has remained off the streets, and other security forces have sometimes struggled with how to respond to protests. On Friday, a small crew of soldiers stood back as crowds massed outside the embassy.
The incident underlined the altered relationship between Israel and post-revolutionary Egypt, in which popular anti-Israeli sentiment, fueled by Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians, has threatened to undermine relations cemented in a 1979 peace treaty and maintained by Mubarak.
The appeals by Israeli leaders to Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who urged the head of the Egyptian military council to act as protesters breached the outer doors of the embassy, underlined Israel’s increasing isolation in the region during a time of tumultuous change. Relations with two of its strongest allies, Egypt and Turkey, have soured, and turmoil in Syria further complicates its security calculations.
White House and State Department officials conferred with Israeli and Egyptian officials throughout the day seeking to defuse tensions, and State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland called on Egypt “to meet its obligations under the Vienna Convention” to protect foreign missions in its country.
In Israel, Netanyahu delivered a nationally televised statement in which he pointedly avoided criticism of the Egyptian authorities, pledging to uphold Israel’s 1979 peace treaty with Egypt and restore the ambassador to his post.
“We will continue to preserve the peace with Egypt,” Netanyahu said. “It is an interest of both countries.”