JERUSALEM — The surreptitious departure of Israel's ambassador from Egypt on Tuesday symbolized to many Israeli officials the new state of affairs between the neighboring countries.
Yitzhak Lebanon flew out of Cairo International Airport for the last time, ending his time in Cairo without a departure ceremony or even a nod of farewell from Egypt's foreign ministry. He had hardly been active in Cairo, having fled the Israeli Embassy there in September when rioters attacked and burned down part of the building. Since then, he has remained stationed in Israel, flying back occasionally for diplomatic meetings and to formally close his offices.
But Israeli officials saw his unheralded departure as a sign of Israeli-Egyptian relations to come.
"This is the state of relations now. There is no real diplomacy, just shuttling back and forth and talks at a bare minimum," said an official from Israel's foreign ministry, who spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to speak on the issue. "At least we still have relations."
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Perhaps not for long. Officials said they are quietly preparing for what they called a "complete break" in diplomatic ties with Egypt. That would mark a dangerous downturn in Israel's relations with its neighbors unequalled in the past three decades.
"Our peace treaty with Egypt was the backbone of our diplomatic relations with the Arab world," said former ambassador Eli Shaked.
Even as events were unfolding Tuesday in Egypt, where the military government offered to step down in July, a concession thought unlikely to satisfy the tens of thousands of demonstrators who crowded into Tahrir Square, Israeli officials were considering it likely that whatever eventually happens there will bode ill for Israel.
Rumors have spread through Cairo that the tear gas and other weapons used by Egypt's military against the protesters were supplied by Israel — despite the English writing and U.S. serial labels found on empty tear gas canisters. Several forums on Facebook suggested that Israel was indirectly supporting the Egyptian military and pressing it to use harsh means against the protesters.
"Israeli evil is behind this," the deputy head of the Egyptian Al-Wasat Party, Osam Sultan, said Tuesday on Egyptian television.
Israeli news anchors showed the report alongside images of protesters in Tahrir Square burning Israeli flags as evidence that relations with Egypt were headed for a break.
"The chances that at the end of the democratic process we will have a secular, democratic, pro-Western Egypt, one that adheres to the peace agreement with Israel and views it as being in its national interest, are eroding," military correspondent Alex Fishman wrote in the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronoth.
He added that the view among Israel's top diplomatic officials was that they "had lost Egypt" and that the widely supported Muslim Brotherhood Islamist group had asserted itself.
"Now there is concern — not just in Israel and in the U.S. but in all the pro-Western states around us — that the military junta will not be able to withstand the pressure and that the Muslim Brotherhood will also dictate how the elections are run and will attract many more votes than predicted in Egypt, more than Israel hoped or Washington prayed for," Fishman wrote.
Israeli officials were also said to be troubled by pledges from several Egyptian politicians that they would cut diplomatic ties with Israel after the elections.
"Although the relations between Egypt and Israel have been undermined after the collapse of Mubarak's regime, we are still unsatisfied with these conditions and serious efforts will be made after the elections to cut relations with the Zionist enemy completely," Majdi Hussein, the secretary-general of the Egyptian Amal Party, said at a press conference Tuesday in Cairo.
While many in Israel have concluded that that outcome was inevitable, several have argued that Israel could salvage its diplomatic relations with Egypt.
Former cabinet minister and one-time envoy to Egypt Binyamin Ben-Eliezer told Israel's army radio on Monday that Israel could improve its standing with Cairo by renewing peace talks with the Palestinians.
Ben-Eliezer, who was considered particularly close to deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, said that Israel needed to consider that popular opinion in Egypt was sympathetic to the Palestinians.
"Israel is constantly expressing its desire to improve relations ... but the leadership today is hand in hand with the people, and their expectations are high. They will simply blame Israel" for any deterioration in relations, he said.
Unless Israel proved itself by entering into serious negotiations with the Palestinians, their standing across the Arab world would continue to fall, said Ben-Eliezer.
The peace process between the Israeli and Palestinian leadership is currently at a standstill. Palestinian officials have demanded that Israel freeze building in its contentious West Bank and East Jerusalem settlements. Israeli officials have rejected that demand and said they would only enter negotiations without preconditions.
(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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