Israel Surprised By Recall of Egyptian Ambassador

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:08 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Egypt recalled its ambassador to Israel on Tuesday in response to what it called an "Israeli escalation of aggression against the Palestinians" after Israel shelled Palestinian targets in the Gaza Strip in retaliation for a roadside bomb attack on a school bus.

Shooting attacks on Israelis and clashes between Israeli troops and Palestinians continued on Tuesday.

Jerusalem was trying to persuade Egypt not to follow through with the recall, which took Israel by surprise. The Foreign Ministry announced that it would not call its ambassador to Egypt home for consultations for the time being.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak said that he hoped the recall would be "short-lived."

"We regret of course that the Egyptian government recalled their ambassador," Barak told a press conference in the Gaza Strip. "We can just hope at a certain time he will be back," he added. "I would not exaggerate the immediate consequences of such a step, but of course we regret it."

A source in Jerusalem, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that Israel was "quite surprised" by the Egyptian decision, which Israel first heard of through the media.

"We are trying to understand why, what, when, how [this happened]," the source said, adding that Israel was still hoping Egyptian Ambassador Mohammed Bassiouny wouldn't leave at all. "We hope to go back to business as usual," she said.

Bassiouny is the longest serving ambassador in Israel, having taken up the post in 1986.

Egypt, one of two Arab states with diplomatic ties to Israel, was the first Arab nation to sign a peace treaty with the Jewish state in 1979. Jordan, the only other Arab nation with diplomatic relations with Israel, signed a peace treaty in 1994.

"The president decided to recall Ambassador Bassiouny to Cairo immediately after the Israeli escalation of aggression against the Palestinians and their deliberate use of force against the Palestinian people," Egypt's official Middle East News Agency quoted Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa as saying.

MENA quoted Moussa as saying that he would discuss the Israeli escalation against the Palestinians with Bassiouny and then other Arab countries. Moussa also referred to an October Arab League resolution which urged Arab states to cut ties with Israel.

It was not clear if Bassiouny's recall was temporary or would preclude the severing of ties with Israel.

"It is a very serious issue," Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami said in a radio interview.

Ben-Ami called into question Egypt's future role as a mediator in negotiations. Mubarak has played a key role as mediator in talks between Israel and the PA.

"I think that recalling the ambassador will hurt Egypt's ability to continue to fill the very important role it has in the process here," Ben-Ami said.

However, Barak said later that Egypt would continue to play an important role in the peace process.

The PA welcomed the Egyptian move. PA cabinet minister Hasan Asfour said the Palestinians appreciated the decision. Asfour hailed it as a "critical message to the Arab nations, to the United States and to the international community that Israel has to pay the price of its aggression."

Asfour was quoted as saying that he hoped this would be followed by "real steps" against "Israel and its ally the United States."

The rapid deterioration in the situation occurred as a result of a roadside bomb, which was detonated as an Israeli school bus carrying 30 children, teachers and parents passed by on Monday morning. Two adults were killed and nine others wounded including five children, in the attack for which Israel directly blamed the PA.

Israel launched retaliatory strikes against Palestinian targets in the Gaza Strip, without its characteristic warning. At least 40 people were injured in the hour-long barrage.

Five Palestinians were killed overnight and during the day on Tuesday. According to the Israeli army, two of them were planning separate terrorist attacks.

An 18-year-old Israeli civilian was shot in the head and critically wounded while driving near the site where yesterday's bomb blast occurred by a Palestinian gunman.

U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen, who is touring the region, said that the two sides should stop fighting. Speaking in Jordan after a meeting with King Abdullah, Cohen said that Israel and the Palestinians should return to the negotiating table.
Cohen is due in Israel on Wednesday and will meet with Barak.