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Egypt PM says peace deal with Israel not sacred

CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt’s Prime Minister Essam Sharaf said a peace deal with Israel was not “sacred” and could be changed for the benefit of peace or the region.

His comments, made in an interview with a Turkish television channel and broadcast on state television, were the strongest yet by the new government which took over after president Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in February.

“The Camp David agreement is not a sacred thing and is always open to discussion with what would benefit the region and the case of fair peace ... and we could make a change if needed,” he said in the interview.

Politics professor Mustapha al-Sayyid said Sharaf’s comments appeared to be aimed more at boosting Egyptian security on the border with Israel, which under the 1979 treaty is subject to limitations, rather than abrogating it altogether.

“It has been well demonstrated that the size of Egyptian forces in this area is not sufficient to meet threats to security. The number of troops should be increased and equipment improved,” he said.

“I don’t think any Egyptian political forces are calling for abrogation of the treaty or even ending diplomatic relations.”

Tensions between Egypt and Israel, which have been rising since Mubarak was overthrown, flared after a cross-border attack last month.

Cairo accused Israeli forces of shooting dead five Egyptian security guards during gun battles with Palestinian militants who Israel says had earlier ambushed and killed eight Israelis.

Egyptian protesters stormed the Israeli embassy last Friday in anger at Israel for the border killings.

Asked about Sharaf’s comments, an Israeli spokesman said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had recently voiced his commitment to the treaty on at least two occasions.

“In both places he stressed the importance of maintaining the peace treaty with Egypt, and that the peace treaty is an anchor for regional stability,” spokesman Mark Regev said.

The army-backed government that Sharaf leads has struggled to contain public anger toward Israel after the border killings.

Egypt threatened to withdraw its ambassador but did not, infuriating many Egyptians who wanted a tougher response. Israeli flew its ambassador out after the Israeli embassy was stormed.

Both countries have said they want to return to normal diplomatic activities. Egypt has vowed to protect the embassy, a move demanded by Israel and the United States.

Many Egyptians have said Cairo should have taken a more assertive line like Turkey, which expelled the Israeli ambassador after Israel refused to apologize for the death of nine Turks in an Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla.

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan visited Egypt this week and received a rapturous welcome from the public.

An Egyptian security official said last month that Egypt and Israel agreed to increase the number of Egyptian troops along the border in the Sinai peninsula.

Egypt has received billions of dollars of U.S. military and other aid since 1979 and has to balance public calls for a tougher line against Israel with a need to keep on good terms with the United States.

“I think what is happening is that both Egypt and Israel are committed to regional peace. They are anxious to move past the incidents of the past weekend and restore the relationship,” U.S. Ambassador to Cairo Anne Patterson told a business forum on Thursday.

Additional reporting by Andrew Hammond and Omar Fahmy in Cairo and Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem; Writing by Edmund Blair; editing by Myra MacDonald