Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi pledges new peace efforts in Middle East

By Joel Greenberg

JERUSALEM — In his first communication with Israel since taking office, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi responded to a greeting from Israeli President Shimon Peres with a message Tuesday pledging to work to put Middle East peace efforts back on track, Peres’s office said.

But the announcement drew swift denials in Egypt, where ties with Israel remain controversial and are opposed by Islamists who have gained political power.

After his election in June, Morsi, a former leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood, said that Egypt would respect all international agreements, an indirect reference to the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, but it was unclear whether he would pursue direct contacts with Israeli leaders.

According to the text of the message made public by Peres’s office, Morsi wrote to his Israeli counterpart: “I am looking forward to exerting our best efforts to get the Middle East peace process back to its right track in order to achieve security and stability for all peoples of the region, including the Israeli people.” Peres had sent a greeting to Morsi two weeks ago at the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

In Cairo, where anti-Israeli sentiment has surged on the streets since last year’s revolution, Egyptian officials called the letter a fake, reflecting unease over its publication.

Morsi’s acting spokesman, Yasser Ali, denied that Morsi had sent any such response. “President Morsi didn’t send any letter to the Israeli president,” Ali was quoted as saying by the Web site of Egypt’s state-owned al-Ahram newspaper. “What the Israeli newspapers published is fake, and this falsehood won’t stop.”

Earlier, Waleed el-Haddad, a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, called accounts of a response by Morsi “completely incorrect.”

Ayelet Frish, Peres’s spokeswoman, said that the letter was conveyed via the Egyptian Embassy in Tel Aviv and that the ambassador had cleared its publication with the Egyptian presidency.

After Morsi’s election victory, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel respected the results and looked forward to continued cooperation on the basis of the treaty between the two countries. Both Netanyahu and Peres sent letters to Morsi congratulating him on his election and urging that the peace accord be upheld.

Relations between Egypt and Israel have been tested since the uprising that toppled Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak last year.

A mob stormed the Israeli Embassy in Cairo in September, forcing the departure of the ambassador after a border incident in which Israeli troops killed five Egyptian officers. The Israeli forces were pursuing gunmen who had crossed the frontier from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and carried out an attack that left eight Israelis dead.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has expressed concern over security threats emanating from Sinai, where militants, including groups inspired by al-Qaeda, have sought to establish a foothold in the wake of the Mubarak regime’s collapse. Since the Egyptian revolution, there have been two deadly cross-border attacks from Sinai and two incidents in which rockets fired from the region hit southern Israel.

A deal for Egypt to supply natural gas to Israel, struck during the Mubarak era, was canceled in April following widespread accusations that officials involved had skimmed off large profits and that the gas was being sold to Israel at below-market prices.

Despite the strains, Egypt’s military leadership, which has remained a dominant force since the revolution, has maintained security ties with Israel and made no move to annul or revise the treaty, which is buttressed by generous American aid to Egypt.

Ernesto Londoño in Cairo contributed to this report.

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