Egypt today recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv to protest Israel's actions in Lebanon, marking this country's most serious diplomatic breach with the Jewish state since the two nations normalized relations under the Camp David accords.
Foreign Minister Kamal Hassan Ali said Egypt took the step because of what he described as Israel's involvement in renewed fighting in Lebanon and its responsibility in the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians in Beirut.
The recall of Ambassador Saad Mortada fell short of severing diplomatic links. President Hosni Mubarak, condemning the "atrocious massacres," indicated in comments to reporters that the action could be a prelude to further measures. Officials said, however, that Egypt was not contemplating another major step directly affecting bilateral relations until the United States had a chance to seek to restore the credibility of the Camp David accords.
Egyptian officials said privately that they were growing impatient with the slow pace of U.S. actions as a peace maker in the region, although they were satisfied with the firmness of the U.S. condemnation of Israel's assault on Beirut. The recall indicated that Egypt was willing to act on its own against Israel while awaiting U.S. initiatives.
Egypt opened its embassy in Israel in February 1980 and is the only Arab nation to maintain full diplomatic relations with the Jewish state.
In Jerusalem, Israeli officials said they hoped the absence of the Egyptian ambassador "will be short, possibly a few days but nothing more," Washington Post correspondent Edward Walsh reported. The officials said they were sorry Egypt took the action and accused the Egyptian government of "deviating" from the Camp David accords.
Foreign Minister Ali said in a speech to the ruling party's Foreign Relations Committee that Israeli actions in Lebanon were completely unjustified and reaffirmed Egypt's call for Israel's immediate withdrawal from the country. He also hinted that a continued Israeli presence in Lebanon could affect normal relations between Egypt and Israel.
The minister has said previously that Egypt has not signed any new contracts with Israel since it invaded Lebanon last June, but Egypt continues to sell oil to Israel at a rate of 14 million barrels annually. Israeli ships pass through the Suez Canal, and tourists travel between the two countries.
One Egyptian official said that the Israeli Cabinet's recent indifference to calls for a withdrawal from Lebanon has led officials here to conclude that the government led by Menachem Begin is a "hopeless case."
Egyptian-Israeli relations have been going downhill since Israel officially annexed East Jerusalem two years ago. Egypt reacted then with a suspension of the talks on Palestinian autonomy.
Under Mubarak's leadership, Egypt has rejected Israeli attempts to decide on a venue for the talks and recently has made the resumption of the talks conditional on an Israeli pullback from Beirut. Cairo also has urged adoption of a timetable for Israel's withdrawal from all of Lebanon, a freeze on Israeli settlement activities in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip and unspecified additional good-will gestures toward the inhabitants of those areas