JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu voiced confidence on Sunday in Egypt’s commitment to peace with Israel after the ransacking of its Cairo embassy shook the shifting foundations of a brittle relationship with its first Muslim ally.
The outpouring of public hostility toward Israel in demonstrations on Saturday forced the evacuation of its ambassador from Egypt on Saturday and strained ties between two countries locked in what Israelis have long described as a “cold peace.”
The new crisis with Egypt, whose toppled president, Hosni Mubarak, kept anti-Israel protests in check amid massive U.S. aid, erupted just a week after Turkey expelled Israel’s envoy in a dispute over a 2010 Israeli raid on a Gaza aid flotilla that killed nine Turks.
Netanyahu, echoing remarks he made on Saturday, told his cabinet that Israel was in contact with Egyptian authorities about returning the Israeli ambassador to Cairo and the security arrangements necessary to protect him and his staff.
“Those who rip down flags ... they are negating peace and the country,” Netanyahu said in public comments at the session. “I am glad there are other forces in Egypt, including the Egyptian government, that are interested in advancing peace.”
In violence that began on Friday and raged into the early hours of Saturday, crowds stormed the Israeli embassy, besieging a six-man Israeli security detail.
Israeli leaders, and banner headlines in the Israeli media, described the public fury toward the Jewish state as an attack on the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty.
“We will stick to it,” Netanyahu said, referring to the accord, the first signed between an Arab country and Israel.
But the events in Cairo have deepened Israeli concern over Egypt’s “Arab Spring” transformation.
“What began with Western slogans -- will it end in Islam, dictatorship, democracy? All of that is still completely open,” Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor said on Israel Radio.
The front pages of Israeli newspapers carried photographs of jubilant Egyptian flag-waving demonstrators on the balcony of the embassy, housed in a high-rise building.
Other photos showed a tense Netanyahu, in a polo shirt, monitoring the scene on television, on the Jewish Sabbath.
The security personnel, who Israeli officials said fired in the air at one point, were rescued by Egyptian troops after U.S. President Barack Obama intervened at Netanyahu’s request with Cairo’s military rulers.
Washington has poured billions of dollars of military aid into Egypt since the peace accord was signed. But Egypt’s army, under pressure to hand back power to civilians after taking over from Mubarak, is under public pressure to take a harder line toward Israel.
Two Israeli planes flew home the security team and Israeli ambassador Israeli ambassador Yitzhak Levanon, embassy staff and family members.
One diplomat stayed in Egypt to maintain the embassy, and Egypt’s rulers promised on Saturday to try those behind the violence, in which three people were killed and 1,049 wounded.
Anti-Israeli feeling has also been fueled by Israel’s killing of five Egyptian security personnel last month in an operation against gunmen who it said infiltrated from the Gaza Strip via the Egypt’s Sinai desert and killed eight Israelis.
Netanyahu said the Cairo protests ran deeper than opposition to Israeli policies and were also part of an effort to challenge the legitimacy of Israel as a state.
Later this month, Israel faces a tough diplomatic challenge at the United Nations, where Palestinians plan to ask for an upgrade in their membership status in the absence of peace talks with Netanyahu’s government.
Additional reporting by Cairo bureau; Editing by David Cowell