CAIRO — Israel and Egypt's leadership tried Saturday to limit the damage in ties after protesters stormed Israel's embassy in Cairo, trashing offices and prompting the evacuation of nearly the entire staff from Egypt in the worst crisis between the countries since their 1979 peace treaty.
The 13-hour rampage deepened Israel's fears that it is growing increasingly isolated amid the Arab world's uprisings and, in particular, that Egypt is turning steadily against it after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, the authoritarian leader who was a close ally.
In Israelis' eyes, the scene of cars burning outside the embassy and the tale of six Israeli guards trapped inside for hours in a steel-doored safe room underscored their view that anti-Israeli sentiment in Egypt was running free after decades of being contained by Mubarak's regime. The ousted leader's powerful security forces never would have let a protest get near the Nile-side embassy.
Egypt's new military rulers, in turn, appear caught between preserving key ties with Israel — which bring guarantee them billions in U.S. military aid — and pressure from the Egyptian public. Many Egyptians are demanding an end to what they see as too cozy a relationship under Mubarak, who they feel knuckled under to Israel and the U.S., doing nothing to pressure for concessions to the Palestinians.
Egyptian security forces did nothing as hundreds of protesters massed Friday outside the Nile-side high rise residential building where the Israeli Embassy is located and tore down a concrete security wall Egyptian authorities erected there only weeks earlier. Many protesters saw the wall as a symbol of the government's willingness to protect Israelis but not Egyptians, since it was put up to keep back protests after Israeli forces chasing militants accidentally killed five Egyptian soldiers in the Sinai Peninsula.
Police and military also did little initially when a group of around 30 protesters after nightfall climbed in a third-story window and raced up to the embassy floors, broke into an office and began throwing Hebrew-language documents to the crowd below. The protesters ransacked parts of two floors of the embassy for hours until police finally managed to clear them out in the early hours Saturday.
Frantic Israeli calls to President Barack Obama brought American intercession to help ease the violence.
An Egyptian security official said the ruling military did not order the police to clamp down on the protests outside in order to "avoid a massacre." They couldn't move more quickly to clear out protesters inside the embassy because the fervent crowd outside "considered them heroes," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk to the press.
But in a Saturday evening television address, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu avoided any condemnations and instead stressed the need to maintain its strategic relationship with Egypt, whose peace with Israel — though sometimes chilly — has been a vital peg of stability for the Jewish state.
"We will continue to keep the peace with Egypt it is an interest of both countries," Netanyahu said.
He thanked Egyptian commandos for rescuing the six trapped embassy guards, saying they "prevented a tragedy without a doubt" and stressed that Israeli officials had been in touch with Egyptian counterparts throughout the unrest.
Still, he and his Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman hinted the American intervention prompted Egyptian authorities to act. Both profusely thanked President Barack Obama for helping.
"I asked him to help, it was a decisive moment, I would even say fateful, he said he would do everything he could to help and he did so. He deployed all means and influence and I think we owe him a special thank you," Netanyahu said.
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