CAIRO – 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 assuring him it is only temporary, Egyptian officials said Saturday.
The officials — one from Egyptian intelligence and another from the military — said 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 matter.
But as the new defense minister, el-Sissi at some point would have to speak with senior Israeli officials, particularly after they publicly expressed their concerns about Egypt's deployment of heavy weaponry to Sinai.
Under the 1979 peace accord between the two countries, Egypt is allowed to have only lightly armed policemen in the zone along the border with Israel. The treaty stipulates that significant military moves by Egypt must be coordinated with Israel.
Egypt used attack helicopters and armored personnel carriers in coordination with Israel to go after militants suspected of being behind the Aug. 5 killing of 16 Egyptian soldiers in Sinai.
Later, however, Egypt deployed U.S.-made M60 tanks to Sinai without consulting with Israel, which drew objections from the Israel despite the fact that it has long encouraged Cairo to crack down on militants in Sinai.
Israel does not view the Egyptian military buildup there as a strategic threat. The problem, Israeli officials said, is with Egypt setting a precedent by moving troops to Sinai without coordinating the move with Israel first.
Israeli officials stressed that significant military moves by Egypt must be run by Israel first, giving it a veto of sorts over Egyptian security strategy.
Israel has the most powerful military in the Middle East, and Egypt's new military deployment in Sinai is not viewed as a threat. In addition, the two nations have been at peace for decades and — despite some turbulence in their relations in the wake of Egypt's uprising last year — remain in close contact regarding security matters.
Israel has itself been a target of Islamic militants based in Sinai in recent months and wants to see Egypt's security forces reign in the lawlessness that has swept across the desert peninsula since longtime President Hosni Mubarak was toppled and his powerful police force disappeared from the streets.
In his phone call with Barak on Thursday, el-Sissi also assured the Israeli that Egypt respects the nations' peace treaty, the intelligence and military officials said 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 job 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 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 landmark peace treaty.
The confusion surrounding the letter might have stemmed from a protocol mix-up. It was sent by the Egyptian Embassy in Tel Aviv 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 Israel. Both spoke on condition of anonymity.
Associated Press writer Ian Deitch contributed to this report from Jerusalem.