Setback as Egypt Walks Out on Israel

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A Palestinian boy is taken to the hospital after Israeli bombing of Gaza

Israel's response to Monday's bus bombing in Gaza may have deepened its political crisis. Egypt on Tuesday recalled its ambassador to Tel Aviv until further notice after Israeli helicopters and naval vessels bombarded Gaza City continuously for two hours overnight. The Israeli strikes, in which one person was killed and 120 were reported wounded, followed the bombing of an Israeli bus ferrying settler children to school Monday, which killed two teachers and seriously wounded a number of children. As predictable as the Israeli response may have been, its ferocity may have prompted a new round of diplomatic setbacks for the Jewish state.

Although Israel's foreign minister immediately denounced Cairo's "grave" decision and warned that it could harm Egypt's ability to play a role in the peace process, his comments had the ring of false bravado. As the first Arab country to make peace with Israel, Egypt has played an anchor role in efforts to broker an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, and it is generally acknowledged that the support of moderate Arab regimes is indispensable to securing compromise between Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the Israelis. Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia are under increasing pressure from their own citizenry to take a stronger stand in support of the Palestinians, especially since Jerusalem became a central point of contention in the peace process.

Dangers for Israel

There's little danger of Israel finding itself once again on a war footing with its neighbors. Egypt may have little enthusiasm for being at peace with Israel in the current circumstances, but it has no taste for being at war with its stronger neighbor. Still, the change in tenor of relations with its original Arab peace partner signals dangers for Israel — U.S. interests in the region are best served when Israel and the moderate Arab regimes are in accord; discord between them creates dilemmas for Washington, particularly in periods when the support of moderate Arab regimes is needed in its pursuit of lower oil prices or in crises such as the Gulf War. And the warning to Israel was clear in Monday's State Department statement that "the Israelis also need to understand that the excessive use of force is not the right way to go," as well as off-the-record comments by senior administration officials chiding Israel for its "disproportionate and excessive" response to Monday's bombing.

The events of the past two days also appear to have once again dashed hopes of restoring a cease-fire. While Arafat had called late last week for a halt to firing on Israelis from territories under his control, and blamed Monday's bomb blast on factions opposed to the peace process, the Israelis held his Fatah organization directly responsible — and made its facilities the prime target of their overnight bombardment. The hard men on both sides appear to have started another cycle of revenge, which, no matter how much blood is spilled, always seems to return both sides to the same impasse.