Egypt’s prime minister triggered angry consternation in Israel on Thursday after declaring that the historic Camp David accords underpinning peace between the two countries were “not a sacred thing”.
Dramatically heightening tensions during an increasingly volatile time in Israel’s relations with the Arab world, Essam Sharaf’s suggestions that the 32-year treaty could be revised prompted disbelief in the Jewish state.
“The Camp David agreement is not a sacred thing and is always open to discussion with what would benefit the region and the case of fair peace,” Mr Sharaf told Turkish television. “We could make a change if needed.”
Coming just days after an angry mob stormed the Israeli embassy in Cairo, Israeli officials said they were staggered more by the timing of Mr Sharaf’s comments than their actual content. “Less than a week ago, we had the problem with the embassy,” an Israeli official said. “I don’t think a responsible prime minister should say things like that.”
Reeling from a noxious diplomatic row with Turkey and fearing that an expected Palestinian bid for statehood at the UN next week will heighten its growing sense of isolation.
On Thursday, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, raised the stakes by repeating his intention to deploy warships in the Mediterranean to challenge Israeli “aggression”.
“Israel cannot do whatever it wants in the eastern Mediterranean,” he said. “They will see what our decision will be on this subject. Our navy attack ships can be there at any moment.”
Israel has spoken of its determination to defuse tensions with Egypt in the wake of last week’s embassy raid.
Until yesterday, Egypt’s transitional military leadership had responded in kind, insisting that it wanted to uphold the Camp David accords, whose historic agreement in 1978 is widely seen as ending the cycle of Israeli-Arab wars that erupted in the preceding 30 years.
But, in the wake of the popular revolution that overthrew Hosni Mubarak, the former president, in February, Egypt’s present crop of transitional leaders have been forced to take into account the view of ordinary Egyptians, many of whom remain deeply suspicious of Israel. Mr Mubarak, by contrast, assiduously upheld the treaty with Israel, even assisting in imposing an Israeli blockade on the Gaza Strip, which has a border with Egypt.
Public anger towards the Jewish state mounted after Israeli troops in pursuit of suspected militants inadvertently shot dead five Egyptian border guards, leading to last Friday’s riot at the embassy.
In the aftermath of the revolution, a number of civilian politicians likely to contest presidential elections in Egypt at the end of the year have said they want to revise “humiliating” aspects of the treaty with Israel.
In particular, they want the right to take fuller economic and military control of the Sinai region, which Israel occupied after the Six Day War of 1967 but handed back after the peace treaty of 1979, signed a year after the meeting at Camp David brokered by then US president Jimmy Carter.
Israeli officials in private say such demands are not unreasonable, and could even be beneficial given the growing lawlessness of the Sinai region. But the phrasing of Mr Sharaf’s comments, particularly that the treaty is not “scared”, is seen as incendiary.
“Others who have said this kind of thing have been presidential candidates but this is the prime minister – that is what is disturbing,” the Israeli official said. “He should be more careful.”
By making his comments to Turkish television, Mr Sharaf appeared to be attempting to burnish his populist credentials.
He spoke just after Prime Minister Erdogan had completed a visit to Egypt.
Seeking to present himself as a champion of the Palestinian cause, a stance that has won him huge popularity in the Arab world, Mr Erdogan has kept up a steady stream of invective against Israel in recent days.
Earlier this month he expelled Israel’s ambassador to Turkey, downgraded diplomatic relations and suspended defence ties after Israel refused to apologise for killing nine Turkish nationals during its botched raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla last year.
Increasing Israel’s sense of vulnerability, a last-ditch US bid to prevent the Palestinian Authority from making a controversial bid for statehood appeared to have failed yesterday, setting the stage for a major diplomatic showdown at the United Nations next week.
Palestinian officials signalled their determination to defy stiff opposition from Washington by pressing ahead with a formal application for UN membership after the annual session of the General Assembly opens in New York on Monday.
With Israel threatening “harsh and grave consequences” if the bid goes ahead, President Barack Obama sent his closest Middle East advisers, Dennis Ross and David Hale, to the West Bank to persuade Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, to back down.
But aides in the Palestinian city of Ramallah said that, although he would hear the Americans out, Mr Abbas would not be dissuaded from pursuing a cause seen as vital to his political survival. The Palestinian leader is due to address the General Assembly next Friday, Sept 23rd.
“We will see if anyone carries with him or her any credible offer that will allow us to look into it seriously and to be discussed win the Palestinian leadership,” said Riyad al-Malki, the Palestinian foreign minister. “Otherwise, on the 23rd at 12.30, the president will submit the application.”