A year after Cairo recalled its ambassador to Israel amid regional turmoil, a new ambassador arrived in the country on Sunday, an unexpected and positive move that seemed to confirm pledges by Egypt’s new Islamist leader that he intends to honor diplomatic commitments including the 1979 peace treaty with Israel.
Israeli officials went out of their way Sunday to play down the significance of the appointment. “Don’t read too much into this,” one diplomatic official said.
However that reticence, some insiders said, might reflect an Israeli desire not to embarrass President Mohammed Morsi by over-dramatizing news of the appointment. When President Shimon Peres publicized the fact that he had received a polite letter from Morsi in July, the Egyptian president’s office hurriedly denied ever sending it.
Incoming ambassador Atef Salem, a career diplomat, is expected to present his credentials to Peres on October 17, according to the Foreign Ministry. Atef Salem served previously as Egypt’s consul-general in Eilat.
“He has been appointed and has already arrived in Israel. We welcome him and wish him good luck,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Paul Hirschson told The Times of Israel.
There has not been an Egyptian ambassador in Israel since August 2011, when Cairo recalled Yasser Reda from Tel Aviv to protest the deaths of five Egyptian servicemen in a border incident in which terrorists from Sinai crossed into Israel.
An Israeli diplomatic official, who asked not to be named, said that the exchange of ambassadors is a fairly standard procedure between countries who entertain bilateral relations. “Sending a new ambassador to Israel is normal,” he said, but added: “Of course you could say that normal is good in these turbulent times.”
What exactly Salem’s appointment as ambassador means for the future of bilateral relations was still unclear, the official said, since the new Egypt was difficult to figure out.
Relations between Cairo and Jerusalem have been increasingly fragile ever since Egypt’s longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak was dethroned last year in the throes of the Arab Spring. Tensions flared up last September, when the Israeli Embassy in Cairo was attacked by thousands of angry protesters after the cross-border attack the previous month.
In June, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Morsi became Egypt’s first freely elected president, with his success sparking fears among Israelis regarding the future of the 1979 peace treaty. Still, Morsi has repeatedly said he intends to honor all of Egypt’s international obligations and treaties.
In July, Peres’s office said it received a friendly letter from Morsi in which the new Egyptian leader said his country was committed to regional security and stability, including for the Israeli people. After Israeli media reports about the missive, a spokesman for Morsi denied any correspondence had been sent to Peres. Some analysts saw Morsi’s friendly overture to his Israeli counterpart as an “encouraging sign” that the new president was acting in accordance with diplomatic protocol, and worried that Israel embarrassed him by publicizing the letter.
Israel’s ambassador to Egypt, Yaacov Amitai, was warmly received by Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi in February, when Egypt was still controlled by country’s military council.
“The presentation of credentials was held in a cordial atmosphere,” the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem stated at the time in a statement. Amitai, who arrived in Cairo in December 2011, and Tantawi spoke to each other, reiterating “the importance of the peace agreement and cooperation” for both countries,” according to the statement.
While Israel still does not have a new embassy in Cairo, Amitai spends most weekdays and some weekends in Egypt, a diplomatic official told The Times of Israel.