Issues

New Israeli Embassy Opens in Cairo

Comes four years after previous building ransacked by mob

A fire rages outside the previous Israeli embassy in Cairo / AP

JERUSALEM—Exactly four years after the Israeli embassy in Cairo was ransacked by a mob and vacated, a new embassy was opened Wednesday in a low-profile ceremony in the Egyptian capital.

The residence of the Israeli ambassador to Egypt was officially declared to be the new embassy, a status attested to by a small plaque reading "Embassy of Israel" unveiled outside the entrance to the walled compound  and an Israeli flag raised on a pole in an inner courtyard.

Given the violence of the 2011 incident and the anti-Israel sentiment prevailing among much of Egypt’s population, the reopening of an embassy was an act of courage both on the part of Israeli diplomats and President Abed Fattah al-Sisi. While officially recognizing the new embassy, the Egyptian government sent only one low-ranking official to the ceremony, the deputy chief of protocol of the foreign ministry. Also attending was the American ambassador to Egypt, Stephen Beecroft, whose presence was a significant gesture of support for Israel meant to be seen by Egyptians.

The sacking of the embassy followed an attack by Jihadi militants in Sinai who crossed into Israel and killed eight Israelis in a road ambush close to the border fence. Some of the militants were reportedly wearing Egyptian uniforms. Israeli troops engaged them in a fire fight during which three Egyptian border guards were also killed. The Egyptian army declared a state of alert and demanded an apology from Israel. Egypt’s president at the time was Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Three weeks later, thousands of demonstrators gathered outside the high-rise building in which the embassy occupied two upper floors. Most of the staff was able to get away safely but six  Israeli security security men remained behind, locking themselves in a "safe room" with a steel door. Egyptian security forces were unable to control the mob which broke through a concrete wall and began battering at the steel door. Fearing a lynch, Israeli officials contacted senior American officials in Washington, including Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who persuaded Egyptian military leaders to take immediate action. A commando unit forced its way through the mob and rescued the Israeli security men at the last moment.

All Israeli diplomats and their families were flown back to Tel Aviv that night except for the deputy ambassador who worked for some time out of the  American embassy. In time, a small diplomatic team returned to Cairo and began to operate out of the ambassador’s residence, which today became the new embassy. Israel says it wishes to build a new embassy but thus far no suitable site has yet been found by the Egyptian authorities.

At today’s ceremony, Dr. Dore Gold, director general of Israel’s foreign ministry, said that Egypt was the "largest and most important" country in the Middle East. Noting the arrival of the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashana, next week, he said "this event in Cairo is also a new beginning."

Relations between the al-Sisi administration and Israel have involved close cooperation between the Egyptian army, which al-Sisi headed before becoming president, and Israeli intelligence regarding the Islamic militants in Sinai. Israel has permitted Egypt to deploy attack helicopters and other armaments to eastern Sinai even though that is banned under the peace agreement. In an interview with the Washington Post earlier this year, al-Sisi said that he talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by phone "a lot."  In bidding for American support despite questions in Washington over his legitimacy as president, he noted that Egypt has consistently honored the peace treaty signed with Israel in 1979 and that he continues to do so.