NEW YORK (AP) — US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on Egypt Monday to strengthen its communications with Israel, hours after a border attack from Sinai prompted harsh warnings from Cairo officials about IDF meddling in its territory.
Clinton’s meeting with Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi in New York ahead of the UN General Assembly was the first in-person contact between the countries since a video made in the US ridiculing Islam prompted violent Egyptian protests on the anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks. American officials said their discussions sought to strengthen a relationship that both countries see as vital.
Clinton’s request came on the heels of rising tension between Israel and Egypt over cross border terror attacks emanating from Sinai.
Earlier on Monday, a top Egyptian military official threatened to “cut the hands” of anybody who incurred into sovereign Egyptian territory, a thinly-veiled threat aimed at Israel.
On Friday, an Israeli soldier was killed by Sinai terrorists along the border, the latest in a series of terror attacks emerging from the peninsula.
Extremist activity has grown in the Sinai since last year’s political upheaval, which ended with the ouster of longtime US ally Hosni Mubarak. The volatile region, which links Egypt’s borders with the Gaza Strip and Israel, has become increasingly lawless. In a brazen attack in August, unidentified militants killed 16 Egyptian soldiers.
Egypt has launched an offensive aimed at rooting terror out of the territory, a move Israel has both praised. However Israeli officials are reportedly skittish over the presence of heavy arms, including tanks, in the demilitarized peninsula, which Israel sees as a defensive buffer zone.
Egypt removed several tanks last month after Israel raised concerns, via the US, over the tanks. However reports surfaced Monday night that Cairo had returned the fighting machines to the northern Sinai, according to Israel Radio.
The neighbors established a close counterterrorism partnership under Mubarak, but relations have dipped since. Members of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood have expressed skepticism about the merits of Egypt’s three-decade-old peace treaty with Israel, and the Jewish state has viewed with great suspicion the political rise of Morsi and other hardline Islamists.
Ties between United States and Egypt have been similarly strained severely by a year-and-a-half of rapid change in the Middle East, with US President Barack Obama candidly remarking that the two countries were now neither enemies nor allies.
Speaking to Morsi, Clinton emphasized the importance of ensuring the security of diplomatic installations, said a senior US official, who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly about the private meeting and requested anonymity.
Morsi was criticized for his slow, initial response to the protests that ended with vandalism of the embassy and the American flag torn down, but the official stressed that US officials see the Egyptian government’s protection since as reassuring.
Morsi assured Clinton that embassy protection was “Egypt’s duty,” the official said.
The meeting occurred amid a jam-packed schedule for Clinton in New York, where she is attending this week’s annual gathering of the UN General Assembly and speaking with a host of world leaders. Egyptian hopes of a maiden meeting between Morsi and Obama were dashed when the White House announced that the president would not be participating in bilateral meetings during his brief stay in the city. Obama arrived Monday and will leave Tuesday after his speech to the General Assembly.
Shortly after the Cairo protests, Obama appeared to express his dismay with Egypt’s handling of the situation. In an interview with the Spanish-language network Telemundo, he said: “I don’t think that we would consider them an ally, but we don’t consider them an enemy.”
The nature of the US-Egyptian relationship wasn’t under question in Clinton’s meeting with Morsi, said the US official, who said that officials for the two countries see relations as having moved past the place they were only 12 days ago.
The Times of Israel contributed to this report.