Egypt tells Israel military presence in Sinai is temporary

Defense minister tells Ehud Barak tanks are needed to fight terrorism; Israel defense official denies conversation took place

Illustrative photo of Egyptian army trucks carrying military tanks in the northern Sinai Peninsula, August 2012. (AP/File)
Illustrative photo of Egyptian army trucks carrying military tanks in the northern Sinai Peninsula, August 2012. (AP/File)

CAIRO (AP) — In the first direct contact with his Israeli counterpart since taking office, Egypt’s new defense minister defended his country’s increased military presence in the Sinai Peninsula, saying it is needed to fight terrorism and is temporary, Egyptian officials said Saturday.

The officials — one from Egyptian intelligence and the second from the military —  confirmed reports that Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi called Ehud Barak on Thursday in their first conversation since el-Sissi became defense minister earlier this month. The phone call followed grumbling from Israeli officials about not being consulted before Egypt’s leaders deployed tanks to the Sinai Peninsula, the strip of Egyptian land that borders Israel and the Gaza Strip.

The Israeli defense ministry refused comment. An Israeli defense official said no conversation took place between el-Sissi and Barak. The official spoke on condition of anonymity due to the extreme sensitivity of the mater.

Egypt beefed up its military presence in Sinai after an Aug. 5 attack blamed on Islamic militants that killed 16 Egyptian soldiers in the peninsula.

Israel said that Egypt moved tanks into Sinai without its consent — something that is required under the 1979 peace treaty between the countries.

The Egyptian officials said el-Sissi reaffirmed Cairo’s commitment to the peace accord in his conversation with Barak.

The officials spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of relations between Egypt and Israel at this time.

In Egypt, the president’s spokesman could not be immediately reached for comment.

Israel-Egypt relations have grown increasingly complicated since the June election of President Mohammed Morsi, an Islamist and member of the Muslim Brotherhood who is Egypt’s first freely elected civilian leader.

Morsi’s sudden move earlier this month to replace longtime leaders of the Egyptian military familiar to Israel following the Sinai attack has added to the tensions. El-Sissi served as head of military intelligence for two years before assuming the post of defense minister from Hussein Tantawi, who held the post for 20 years.

The conflicting reports seemed to reflect sensitivities that were also apparent in an incident last month after Israel said Morsi wrote back to Israeli President Shimon Peres, who had sent the Egyptian president a letter wishing him well on the start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. The president’s office denied sending any reply.

The letter was a potential embarrassment since Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood group has long been hostile to Israel and has said its members in government will have no contact with it — though they have promised to preserve the countries’ landmark peace treaty.

The confusion also might have stemmed from a protocol mix-up. The letter was sent by the Egyptian Embassy in Tel Aviv and sent to Peres by fax and by courier — and was on the mission’s stationary, not the presidency’s, though it is written in the name of Morsi. An Egyptian Foreign Ministry official and an official close to the presidency told The Associated Press that Morsi has no intention to communicate directly with the Israelis and that he mandated the Foreign Ministry to take over routine contacts with the Jewish state. Both spoke on condition of anonymity.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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