Israeli Embassy Attack Raises Questions

  • Middle East Policy

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Middle East In Focus

Last Friday, hundreds of Egyptian youths stormed the Israeli embassy in Cairo and set it on fire, triggering the evacuation of Israeli diplomats and their families. The actions of the protesters have drawn attention to the new reality that Israel faces in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, as well as to internal tensions in Egypt.

In Israel, the news of the attack on the embassy elicited different reactions. The right-leaning Jerusalem Post hinted in an editorial that Egyptian youth would do better to direct their frustrations at their own government, rather than Israel: “The siege of the embassy hardly bodes well for the future of Israeli-Egyptian relations as the Egyptian people prepare for their first truly free and democratic parliamentary and presidential elections — presently being planned for October or November…Understandably, there is widespread discontent among Egyptians, who have come to the realization that the enormous energies channeled through Tahrir Square have so far failed to yield tangible improvements. But instead of venting their frustrations on Israel and endangering the fragile peace that helps bring stability to the region, Egyptians should instead focus on the myriad challenges that lie ahead for them as they make the transition to the post- Mubarak era.”

In an article in Yedioth Ahronoth, Daniel Nisman suggests the attacks demonstrate “Egypt’s uprising has failed.… Unfortunately for many freedom-seeking Egyptians, the events that transpired only conveyed to the international community that Egypt is not ready for the challenges and responsibilities of democracy. Incidents like these have many politicians secretly yearning for Mubarak’s oppressive dictatorship, which might have been necessary to contain what is generally an unruly and aggressive society….Regardless of their policies toward Israel, foreign ministries from Oman to England should be scrambling to contact Egypt’s transitional government and voice their concern for the safety of their own embassies….As the Mubarak trial resumes this week, world leaders who recently shunned him will perhaps realize that his iron grip on Egyptian society was not enforced based on a thirst for tyranny but, rather, out of necessity.”

However, not everyone in Israel believes the problem lies with Egyptian youth only. For example, the left-leaning Haaretz cautions in an editorial, “It would be a strategic mistake for Israel to ignore the broader context of the storming of the Cairo embassy and treat it as an isolated incident to be resolved by the arrest and prosecution of the rioters. The rules of the game with Egypt have changed. The policy of winks and tacit agreements of the days of former president Hosni Mubarak is now on trial and cannot survive….For the strategic alliance with Egypt, Jordan, Turkey and other countries to survive, Israel will have to propose real policies and solutions to the conflict with the Palestinians. It must drop the empty slogans about prestige and national pride and recognize the deep change in its status that has begun.”

In Egypt, there are some who see what is going on between Israel and Egypt in a larger context. Suspicious of Israel’s true intentions in its dealings with Egypt, Al Ahram argued in an editorial, “Recent developments on Egypt’s borders with Israel, alarming as they are, tell us a lot about Israel’s intentions. Israel wants to make Egypt do things that it is not particularly inclined to do.…Since the 25 January Revolution, Israel has been eager to hamper Egypt’s forward motion. Concerned that Egypt would resume its leading position in the region if left alone, Israel has been looking for ways to make things harder on Egypt….To get Egypt to consider the offer, Israel started stirring up trouble in Sinai. Then it accused Egypt of being lax in keeping security. It is tempting to think that the recent attacks in Sinai were all the work of Mossad, especially the recent operation across the border in Eilat, the one that Israel used as a pretext to kill five Egyptian security personnel.”

Writing for The Egyptian Gazette however, Mohssen Arishie expresses his disapproval of what he believes is the “revolution descend[ing] into anarchy…. The violence on Friday night must have had a very negative impact on the support ordinary citizens originally gave to the youthful revolutionaries….The attack on the Israeli Embassy in Giza was an act of arson and looting. The attack was not planned and launched by some people who loathe the presence of the embassy of the country of ‘an enemy’ in the heart of Greater Cairo….The revolutionary youths should only blame themselves for Friday’s tragic events. The buck starts and ends with the young revolutionaries, who abandoned the reins of Friday’s mass demonstrations to lawbreakers, anarchists, saboteurs and those loyal to the disgraced regime of Hosni Mubarak….That the revolution descended into anarchy on Friday will have a great impact on the general elections due in November. The liberal movements and their leaders are likely to pay the price.”

A similar level of ambivalence or difference of opinion characterizes most of the foreign press as well. For example, most of the Arab press was critical of the developments. The Khaleej Times editorial regrets the violent turn of events, while accepting that “the attack on the Israeli embassy in Cairo is not without a purpose. The people who drew their strength from the Tahrir Square for long have been aspiring to rewrite the country’s priorities in the socio-political arena, and revisiting foreign policy and especially the so-called peace with the Jewish state has been a cornerstone of their agenda….Much has changed for good as far as Egypt’s relations with its neighbours — especially the Palestinians — are concerned. The reopening of the Gaza border and the inflow of men and material is a blow to Israel’s erstwhile influence over Cairo and the region. The point of concern, however, is the fact that the tide from Tahrir is turning out to be violent. It shouldn’t be the case.”

The other Gulf daily, The Peninsula, was even more critical of the attacks: “The storming of the Israeli embassy on Friday night by hundreds of Egyptian activists is a case of serious security lapse on the part of the new Egyptian government and sends an undesirable message about the Arab revolution. It’s the clearest indication of where the Egyptian revolution is moving and might prompt the West to ask some hard questions….Explained plainly, the attack on the embassy is an expression of Egyptians’ pent up fury against Israel….Anti-Israel sentiment in Egypt has been vociferous since the killing of five Egyptian soldiers by Israeli forces in the aftermath of a militant attack last month near the border in which eight Israelis died….Israel is watching with fear the redrawing of the political map in the region. That calls for a change in its policies too.”

In Saudi Arabia, the daily Arab News editorial acknowledged the grievances of the protesters without condemning or condoning them: “The embassy is like a red rag to a bull for ordinary Egyptians. They see it as an imposition forced on them largely by the U.S. as the price for American financial support. Egyptians want it closed. They want diplomatic relations with Israel put on hold until the day the Israelis recognize and make peace with a free Palestinian state….It is Egypt’s youth who are keeping the pressure up. Yet again, there is a generational divide in the demand for change. Many an Egyptian parent warned their sons and daughters not to attend Friday’s demonstration, saying their objectives had been achieved with the fall of Mubarak. The youth obviously do not believe it is so.”

The sentiments expressed in Lebanon, however, were more supportive of the actions of the protesters. According to a staff report for the Daily Star, “Lebanese politicians expressed support Sunday for the recent actions of anti-Israel protesters in Cairo….Nabatieh MP Mohammad Raad, who heads the Loyalty to the Resistance bloc [said], ‘When the Egyptian people took action, the U.S. seized the opportunity to overthrow Hosni Mubarak … in order to get rid of him and project an image of themselves as supporters of popular uprisings, change and democracy. But it seems that the Egyptian people have realized what the U.S. has planned’….The Hezbollah official stressed that the U.S. cannot control the people’s actions because ‘the people do not want what the U.S. wants for Egypt.’ Meanwhile, former Prime Minister Salim Hoss said that the protesters’ actions ‘registered positions that truly gratified and honored the nation.’”


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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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